Eran Katz. Where Did Noah Park the Ark? Ancient Memory Techniques for Remembering Practically Anything. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010. 237 pages.
Book Review Friday is back! With a vengeance! And since I’ve read this book, and I can’t cite forgetfulness as an excuse for not posting book reviews here each Friday.
Everyone would like a better memory, right? In WHERE DID NOAH PARK THE ARK? memory expert Eran Katz promises to give you just that. He shares several techniques for memorizing lists of things, techniques that no doubt serve him in good stead in his career as a memory entertainer, and that may help you as well.
I’m not going to list all of the techniques, but mostly they involve creating associations between what you’re trying to remember and images. Some of them I’ve seen before, some not, and I can see how they’d all be useful.
But ultimately, is memorizing lists of things really going to help you? For some things, like shopping lists and remembering names at a party/meeting, I think these techniques are definitely useful. But do they give you a better understanding of what you’re remembering? I’m not sure they do.
For example, Katz talks about Cicero a great deal, in particular his De Oratore. Makes him seem pretty well-read. But then he lets something slip that suggests he really doesn’t know all that much about Cicero. Talking about the great orator giving a speech about maintaining horses, he says, “Certainly the masses of horses with colds and runny noses would be a disgrace to the Roman emperor.”
It’s the usual kind of “rimshot” punchline Katz uses, but think about what he just said: Cicero worried about what the “Roman emperor” would think. Wrong on two counts. First, Cicero was an advocate of republican government who strongly opposed the dictatorial tendencies of Julius Caesar, let alone an actual emperor. Second, Cicero was murdered by the Second Triumvirate before Octavian become emperor.
This seems like a minor point, and I don’t bring it up to quibble. But it shows the flaw in using memory shortcuts–you store, but don’t comprehend, the facts you’re memorizing. Katz talks about history classes requiring the memorization of “dusty dates.” I’ve never been in, or taught, a class like that. Studying history’s more about cause and effect, and understanding how things change over time. It doesn’t matter if you can’t remember the exact date that Cicero wrote De Oratore or how many pages it has; it matters than you remember that Cicero was a republican champion who lived in the last days of the republic.
So many of the “studying” techniques, IMHO, won’t work well for many disciplines. You need to understand who all the parts fit together, not just remember what they’re called.
In general, the book was entertaining, with heavy doses of humor throughout. There seems to be a lot of padding–it takes at least 30 pages to get beyond the author just telling you how nice it would be to have a good memory, and there way too many motivational passages larded throughout the work. And the author’s tone can be a bit…overbearing at times, particularly when he tells the reader we’ve all heard phrases likes ad hoc and modus vivendi, but never took the time to look up their meanings. Actually, I know what both those phrases mean, so he’s wrong. He follows this with more padding–“humorous mistakes” that kids have made on tests (which seem to be pinched from a 1931 Dr. Seuss book, no less).
So while I found the techniques to be interesting, and appreciate that having a better memory would be a good thing, there are quite a few elements that take away from WHERE DID NOAH PARK THE ARK?