Foer vs. King
The author of this report has been asked to assess one body of work thorugh the lens of someone else’s perspective. The work that will ultimately be assessed will be On Writing as written by Stephen King. The person whose lens will be used to assess Mr. King’s treatise will be Joshua Foer. Specifically, the work Moonwalking with Einstein will be the prism and lens that will be used to assess and describe what is being manifested in King’s work. Of course, the main premise of Foer’s work was the “art and science of remember everything,” as clearly stated by the subtitle of the book. The work of Foer will be described through some recitation and summary of his work and those quote and ideas will then be applied to the work of King when he wrote his memoir. While the human brain absolutely has limitations, it is also capable of wondrous and expansive things such as changing, adapting and assisting in the creation of works of art that many minds could never endeavor to pull off.
Many people may think that their “lot in life” from a mental and brain-capacity standpoint is fixed, either at birth or at a certain point in life. However, Foer and other professionals in the fields that pertain to the brain are more than willing to assert that this is simply not true. As noted by Foer in his Einstein book, the brain is a “mutable organ, capable — within limits — of reorganizing itself and readapting to new kinds of sensory input, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity” (Foer, 2011). Beyond that, there are many people that have become known as what Foer calls “mental athletes.” To call these people mental athletes is by no means a stretch. Just as conventional physical athletes use parts of their body to exercise and execute their craft, mental athletes do the same thing. The difference is that physical athletes are working things like their arms, legs and abdominals. Mental athletes are unleashing the power of their brain. Foer says this emphatically and he notes that there is proof of this. There was a study done that compared “mental athletes” and how their brain “fires” when they are actively competing. These brain patterns, as measured by an MRI machine, were compared to people that were not engaging in such behavior. Of course, those were the control subjects and were there to serve as a comparison between the mental athletes and the regular people. It was clearly seen that parts left dormant or at least less active in the control subjects minds were firing on all cylinders with the mental athletes. As stated by Foer, “regions of the brain that were less active in the control subjects seemed to be working in overdrive for the mental athletes” (Foer, 2011).
As it relates to the study of the brain, Foer himself admits that he was not born into the study of the brain. He stumbled across a memory competition that was being held in an auditorium. Between the random observations of people talking about the competition and watching the competition itself, something dawned on Mr. Foer. He had no idea how his memory worked or did not work. He had not a clue. After considering the basics, he even wandered into the funnier realms of the general concept when he was wondering why he could not a “unbearable” Britney Spears song out of his head and how he would he started “humming Hanukah jingles as an attempt to dislodge it” (Foer, 2011). He also noted that he could not for the life of him remember what he had for breakfast the day before but he could remember what he ate the morning of the 9/11 attacks (Foer, 2011).
After some introspection and thought, Foer wondered out loud if “anyone” could improve their memory to the extent that they could compete and “belong” among a group of mental athletes that had made memorization their special forte. He found quickly that many self-help people out there that worked with the subject were just hucksters, at least to a degree. What Foer was wondering out loud about was nothing new. Indeed, there was the work of people like Hermann Ebbinghaus dating back to the 1870’s. Foer also notes that we are “virtually identical to our ancestors who painted images of bison on the walls of the Lascaux cave in France.” However, the question becomes why modern-day people have achieved so much more as compared to the people of yesteryear including prior centuries and prior millennia (Foer, 2011).
As far as memory goes, the words that Foer had about 9/11 and how odd it was he remembered certain aspects of that day when he could not remember the same details from a scant day ago ring greatly in the King memoir. For example, he speaks of a situation where he wrote a story that was largely copied and modeled after a “funnybook” by the name of Combat Casey. He showed his work to his mother, who asked him if he made all of it up himself. He was honest and asserted that it was largely a copy of the Casey book. His mother gently chided him and suggested that he write his own book using all of his own material. He immediately took to his laboratory, of sorts. He vividly describes that he was fascinated with the “possibility” that was created by the charge given to him by his mother. The mother asked again if this was his own work and this time, he was able to say that it was. Her mother told him that it was “good enough to be in a book.” Beyond that, King clearly recalls that “nothing anyone has said since to me has made me feel any happier” (King, 2010). He sold four of the stories to his mother’s four sisters and he relishes the fact that it was the “first book I made in the business” (King, 2010).
King also latched on to another seemingly random memory. However, like 9/11 seemingly was for Foer, the moment resonated with King. He notes that an old teacher of his was less than impressed with some of the work he was doing. Specifically, he said “What I don’t understand Stevie … is why you’d write junk like this in the first place. You’re talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?.” King goes on to note that he was “ashamed” and had no answer to give to the woman. However, he later became enlightened and came to the conclusion that “I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent.” Even with that eventual epiphany, it is clear that the course of events that preceded it resonated with Mr. King and he vividly recalls the events to this very day, presumably because it was a seminal moment in his career and his development as a verbal artist (King, 2010).
A final walk down memory lane that Foer would probably salivate over and point to was King’s recollection of how he met his wife. He describes the day in great detail including the color of her hair, the dress she was wearing and even the preconceptions that he had about her. He even remembered the book in her hand, that being Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. Indeed, King was subjected to the memory fixations and “milestone” points that seem to be lodged in our brain. He proves this when he notes that Tabitha, the girl in question and his wife at the time of the memoir’s publishing, would never “let (King) forget that the first time I met her I thought she was Eddie Marsh’s townie girlfriend. Maybe a book-reading waitress from the local pizza joint on her afternoon off.
Memory can be a funny thing and how this all manifests depends on the person. There is the general idea that all memories are somewhere in our head but there is also the condition where certain memories and ideas persevere much more than others. There is the idea that some memories are suppressed and supposedly “forgotten.” Just like other complex webs of factors and circumstances, there are surely reasons why some memories are easily brought to the fore while others are hard to recall and retrieve. Whether it be the passage of time, the forgetfulness (or lack thereof) or something else, memory is still something we know little about.
Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. Print.
King, Stephen. On Writing. New York, NY: Scribner, 2010. Print.
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