Ever since Nickeled and Dimed, authors with a good magazine story are doing what they can to stretch their idea into a book. Foer takes the same approach. Having covered the World Memory Championships, he allows himself to be talked into trying to compete the following year. There are entertaining ‘characters,’ and interesting (if lengthy) digressions. But my central problem is Foer is constantly trying to defend his project, and I just fundamentally disagree that “[progressive education has] brought with it costs for us as individuals and as citizens. Memory is how we transmit virtues and values, and partake of a shared culture” (208). While I agree that the distance we’ve moved away from asking students to know things is, at times, too far, it’s not rote memory – the kind Foer trains to improve – that transmits a shared culture, but memories and stories, which are, by their very definition, hazy around the edges.
He goes on to claim that “[h]ow we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory” (269). This is Foer, even in his Epilogue, trying to hard to intellectualize his year-long effort – to make it larger than a stunt. Yes, internalized memories help us drive, use keys, eat, etc. – much of the basics of our lives – but to say that no work of art was ever produced by an external memory? How would he know? And, to me, such a claim doesn’t make sense. Monet’s internalized memory made it easy for him to paint, but it was externalized memory that allowed him to craft those haystacks.
Foer’s work is not without ambition. He challenges the status of a savant who comes across as a charlatan. And he’s not above making fun of himself either. For all of his work to improve his rote memory, Foer returns from dinner on the subway one night only to remember that he’d driven to the restaurant and can no longer remember where he parked his car.
Recommended, but only if you take it in magazine-sized bites.