Joshua Foer opens the book with a teaser. He is a young journalist attending the USA Memory Championship in 2006. But he is not there as a journalist, he is there as a contestant.
What follows is a description of his experience reporting the 2005 USA Memory Championship and how he was inspired by the ‘mental athletes’ he met – and then was challenged to train his own memory. The premise is that amazing feats of memory can be accomplished by almost anybody. All you need to do is learn the methods and put in some serious practice time.
I was tremendously impressed with this book, published in 2011 and shortlisted for Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. Foer has an engaging and readable style. If the intended audience is an interested member of the general public, then this, my opinion, is exactly how a non-fiction science book should be written.
Never, for one second, was I anything other than utterly absorbed.
How did he do it?
There are two interwoven narratives running through this book.
At the heart of this book is the archetypal story of a journey or a quest. This is the narrative that both bookends the text and provides the main structural element from which the rest hangs. The main plotline is the story of how Joshua started training for the Memory Championship and contains the details of the techniques he learnt, the practice methods he used, and his gradual improvement over the course of a year. The book climaxes with his performance at the 2006 USA contest.
The second narrative involves an explanation of the science behind memory. This is cleverly done by leading us through the history of mnemonics, starting with the ancient literature, and then taking us on and upwards through our modern understanding of the science of memory – all done via the stories of human beings. So, en-route, we meet a supporting cast of interesting people – either blessed (or cursed) with amazing memories or suffering as a result of brain damage and with serious memory problems.
The science is covered elegantly: just enough technical information to establish the concepts and principles that we need to know, and with constant connections back to the experiences of real people.
The main character (the author) comes across as a likable companion, both knowledgeable and sympathetic. We feel both relaxed in his presence and confident in his guidance. He does this through the use of humour and by sharing his own personal progress through the months of mnemonics study.
Lessons I have learnt as a writer
Even in a non-fiction book, it is important for an author to:
- Have a narrative arc, or plot, on which to hang the book.
- Establish credibility by showing you know your subject and, therefore, earn the trust of your reader.
- Use human stories to bring to life the facts or concepts you are covering.
- Don’t be afraid of letting your own ‘voice’ shine through the prose.
Because, while many people say they are interested in reading non-fiction in order to learn more about a particular subject, most people are actually most interested in reading about other people.