There are two books I assume just about everybody who thinks they might make it into the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions this year will read: Stephen Baker's Final Jeopardy, about the Watson man vs. machine matchup earlier this year (which along the way has a substantial amount of game strategy discussion--see my Omni interview with the author), and Joshua Foer's journalist-turns-memory-champ bestseller, Moonwalking with Einstein. I recently finished the latter (no, I can't recite it back to you by heart). It's a book that hews dutifully close to the modern bestseller formula (think Positively Fifth Street meets Outliers), but it's fun and smart and enlightening. Foer's admirably humble both about the memory abilities he develops (he says anyone could do it, and you believe him) and about their value (whatever the intrinsic worth of memorizing a deck of cards in a minute and a half, it's a useful example of how far you can push yourself beyond what you think you can do).
A part of the book I found provocative and even poignant was less about mnemonic tricks than about the way our minds work, and the subjectivity of time. Ed Cooke, Foer's eccentrically self-improving mentor (who, oddly, seems like he could have stepped out of Neil Strauss's The Game), says he's "working on expanding subjective time so that it feels like I live longer." In other words, he's trying to construct his life so that he remembers more of it, and the way to do this is through novelty. Breaking routine gives you more hooks to hang memories on and makes your days, in retrospect, seem more full. Which all seems an interesting but unexceptional point. But what makes it poignant to me is what a creature of habit I am.
I remember (see!) trading letters with a friend back when I wrote letters. She wrote a long letter describing all the places she'd lived as a kid and languages she learned and friends she met (her dad was a diplomat), and I replied with one that said something like, "When I was 7 I lived in Bethesda, Maryland, and went to Wyngate Elementary. When I was 8 I lived in Bethesda, Maryland, and went to Wyngate Elementary. When I was 9 I lived in Bethesda, Maryland, and went to Wyngate Elementary...." It couldn't have sounded duller in the telling, but while I appreciated her more exotic childhood, I didn't really envy it. I am a loyalist to friends and places and ways of doing things, and I often tell myself that clearing away the friction of change lets me focus on the things I care most about, rather than worrying about finding a new dentist or a different cafe to write in or a better kind of sneaker.
But then I think that I can recall every day of walking and exploring on the trip to Paris my wife and I took last year, but I couldn't tell you a thing about the more (well, literally, less) pedestrian days I spent back at home on either side of it. Does that mean that those ten days, so full in memory, were more lived than the others? And did my friend, with so many different places and events to hang her memories on, live, perceptually at least, a longer childhood than I did? It's a good enough question to provoke me--somewhat!--to vary the texture of my days and to seek out new experiences to make each day, week, and year more memorable and therefore, in some sense, more lived.
That's all lovely, no doubt, but the big question remains: Will this book help me on Jeopardy!? The answer at this point is that I'm not sure. Most of the memory tricks Foer cultivates are useful for memorizing something in order (the cards in a deck, the digits of pi), but Jeopardy!, with its varied assortment of categories and its immediate hit-the-buzzer recall, requires random-access, not serial, memory: you need to be a disc drive, not a cassette player. But he has plenty of techniques for making non-consecutive things memorable, and I expect, if I'm not too lazy--one secret of a great memory: you have to put in some serious mental effort to lay down a mnemonic structure to hold all those facts--that they will come in handy for packing in frequently used data that don't, for me at least, contain a natural structure for remembering, like the periodic table or Henry VIII's wives or the capitals of Africa.
But he also makes a more philosophical point that matches my own thinking about memory (and the value of J!-style "trivia"): that memory and knowledge require structure. Here's how Foer puts it:
[E]ven if facts don't by themselves lead to understanding, you can't have understanding without facts. And crucially, the more you know, the easier it is to know more. Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.... The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered.
Bob Harris makes a similar point in his defense of trivia (which he's as surprised as anyone to make) in Prisoner of Trebekistan: trivia, at least of the sort of straightforward kind that Jeopardy! draws on, gives you a structure to base understanding on. I've come to think that the most useful piece of education I got in high school (aside from Deb Wilchek's English classes!) was when I read ahead in our elderly US History textbook so I could take the AP test in the middle of the year. (Side note: in keeping with Foer's point about the importance of strong images for memory, the thing I remember best about that book is when I took it to read out at Great Falls with a girl I knew. Nerd date.) The book was organized around presidential elections, and ever since I've had that every-four-years framework that gave me a place to put all the jumbled events and people and movements in American history that I've since come across. (And speaking of mnemonic aids, what a great idea to have a presidential election every four years, not like those crazily irregular parliamentary systems. How much easier it is to remember the year that, say, Coolidge was reelected when you know it must be divisible by four. Sounds like the sort of practical arrangement Ben Franklin might have actually thought through ahead of time...)
Thinking like that makes my current morning activity (going through DK's massive History reference and taking notes on each country's timeline of events) seem not just an empty exercise done solely for the promise of money and (limited) fame (which it is!), but one that might organize my understanding of the world. I don't want to claim too much for the trivia-builds-muscles argument: names and dates only get you so far. But it's also hard to get very far without them.
P.S. There's a party trick I want to try with the next person I meet who has read Moonwalking with Einstein. Can they recite a list that begins with these items:
- Pickled garlic
- Cottage cheese
- Peat-smoked salmon
- Six bottles of white wine
- Three pairs of socks
- Three hula hoops
- Dry ice machine
- Email Sophia
Anyone who has read the book will recall that this is the first memory test that Ed Cooke gives Foer (based on his current to-do list), and that Foer encourages the reader to try to memorize too, by building a "memory palace" in their head. I built that palace (based, like Foer's, on the house I grew up in--which was a few miles from Foer's, as it happens) and for a few days I could call up all fifteen items in order. I think it will be funny if that list sticks for years in the heads of readers across the country, although when I just tried to remember them now I only got as far as emailing Sophia (there are a half dozen more items), which is a useful measure of how hard you have to work on your palace to make its contents stick.