Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Conversation with Joshua Foer

I am just going to put this out there: Moonwalking with Einstein is my favorite of all the books I’ve read in the past six months. It is sheer pleasure and an absolutely intoxicating, fascinating delight.

Joshua Foer is a journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including Slate, National Geographic, and the New York Times. Moonwalking with Einstein, his first book, explores the world of memory. In what begins as a fantastic journalistic stunt, but soon grows into a witty study of something universal, extraordinary, and strange, Foer finds himself on the hunt for the U. S. Memory Championship. On the way, he digs through research on neurology, history, and culture, and introduces us to a cast of characters who range from admirably dedicated to colorfully bizarre. It’s a generous and humane book, and it will make you want to re-examine the contents of your head.

FOR YOUR CALENDARS: Joshua Foer will be visiting Kepler's on Monday, March 28th, at 7:00 PM

Megan Kurashige: I read your book and adored it, so now, after the fact, writing a book about memory and going absolutely whole hog with your personal investigations seems like the most obvious thing in the world. But what enchanted you about this universal, but still rather arcane, subject? Is there something particularly compelling about memory that lured you into such a full-blown project?

Joshua Foer:
Memory is at the root of who we are, and yet I had this realization at the beginning of this project that I didn't have a clue how my own memory worked. Not a clue. It was kind of a depressing realization, but it set me on a journey that ended up as this book.

MK: You've written for many publications as a journalist, but this is your first book. How was working in a longer form different?

JF: It's both different and the same. A book gives you more room to explore, obviously, but it also imposes requirements in terms of pacing and arc that you don't have to pay as much attention to with shorter pieces. There was so much more information I would have liked to have shared in this book, but I tried to notice where I was getting bored reading my own work. Those sections got cut. It was painful, but hopefully for the best. I was extremely lucky to be working with a very talented editor, Eamon Dolan.

MK: Throughout the book, you introduce us to a whole crowd of fascinating people-scientists, historical figures, teachers, and competitive memorizers. What was it like to spend so much time with people whose lives are focused on memory?

It was inspiring. There is nothing more exciting to me than talking with people about their passions. In this case, those passions all circled around a common theme of memory. It was great spending time with all these people who had different perspectives on what was fundamentally the same subject.
MK: Do you have a favorite memory from the time you spent working on this book? Will it influence your next project or your future work?

JF: I will never forget the time I spent with EP, the man with the worst memory in the world, and Kim Peek, the savant who was the basis for the movie Rain Man. I hope my next project allows me to cross paths with such extraordinary individuals.

I ask this question of most of our visiting authors because I'm interested in what keeps them working in this particular medium: How can books change the world right now? Why did you choose to explore this subject in the form of a book?

JF: I'm not wedded to writing as a medium. It happens to be the only thing I know how to do. But if it were possible to tell the kinds of stories I'd like to tell, and have the kinds of experiences I want to have, while working in a different medium, I would be totally open to that. I just haven't figured out how to do that with the degree of depth that would make it worthwhile.

You can visit Joshua online at his website.

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