The Books Interview: Joshua Foer

You spent a year becoming the US memory champion. Was that always the plan?

No. The book started as a magazine article and then I just became fascinated with the subject. I thought it was going to be about this whole weird subculture of competitive memorisers. That I was going to be at the centre of the story didn't become apparent until very late in the game. And I only started writing the book after I won.

Was it an unexpected triumph?

Yes, but it was also like, "Oh . . . crap." The way I'd been thinking about the story was going to have to completely change. And it was a struggle to put myself into the story - I still feel the stuff I've learned, the history, the science, the characters, are all ultimately interesting. I don't hold up against the guy who can't remember anything or the Rain Man, Kim Peek.

Do you think some cultures have a particularly strong collective memory?

Well, I will say there is some sort of G-spot in the Teutonic soul that is massaged by this kind of a contest. They have high-school and regional championships. The German memory champion is a national celebrity.

How did you train your mind to that level?

The entire art of memorising is figuring out how to transform information that is utterly unmemorable into scenes in your mind's eye that are weird, ugly, colourful and strange.

Such as the image you create of Claudia Schiffer having a bath in cottage cheese?

Yes. It's a kind of engagement of one's imagination you don't practise in daily life. I think a lot of the people who are involved in this world have strange imaginations . . . the other thing is that, in addition to being mental athletes, an overwhelming number of them are physical athletes. These are people who love to push themselves. Such as the guy who won the US championship a couple of weeks ago, Nelson Dellis. He's six and a half feet tall, blond hair, blue eyes. He's now climbing Mount Everest. What else would you do after winning the US memory championship except climb Everest?

Did the process change the way you think?

I never thought that memorising stuff would be fun. What you remember says a lot about you. We remember the things that are important to us, the things that have meaning. I have tried to take away from all of this something that is radically outward-facing - what makes things memorable is paying attention.

You quote William James on how life seems to become less memorable as we grow older. Do you now consciously make memories?

Yes. It's a more philosophical way of approaching life: how can I suck the maximum amount of experience out of whatever it is that I am involved in? To not be someone who has a boring life. That is what will hopefully make time feel like it is passing more slowly, if every day I feel

I am doing something new and different. People probably do not need to be told that this is a good idea, but I think it is useful to have it in the front of your mind.

Do you think we fear losing our memories because it means losing ourselves?

It's the thing that scares us most and it's why memory improvement is such an attractive idea and, for centuries, has attracted all sorts of people who have made a buck off of it. Mark Twain got wrapped up in it. And go back to the Renaissance - these people had these loopy ideas about improving their memories and gaining spiritual access to the inner workings of the universe.

Your brother Jonathan Safran Foer draws heavily on memory in his work. Was it always a shared interest?

We grew up in a Jewish house. I was once interviewed by a journalist for a Jewish newspaper in New York, and he said: "Is this a Jewish book?" I said, "No!" and then I thought for a second: "Actually . . . yes."

The entire Jewish enterprise is about maintaining a collective memory. It is present in every Jewish conversation, in every Jewish ritual experience, so it is probably not surprising that I ended up doing something about memory. Or that Jonathan ended up doing multiple things about memory, from a very different perspective. l

Interview by Sophie Elmhirst
Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking With Einstein: the Art and Science of Remembering Everything" is published by Allen Lane (£14.99 hardback)

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special