Over the last three or four months, I’ve been reading a number of books on memory. Here are my personal takes—they may not match your assessments!—of a handful of books currently available in print and electronically through Amazon. This list clearly doesn’t cover everything currently out there. And I’ve still got a number of memory books on my “to read” list. (These are in alphabetical order, by author’s last name.)
How to Make an Awesome Mind Palace: A Crash Course, Benjamin Branfman
This is more article—or sidebar—than book. You’ll likely finish it in 5 minutes or so. But if you have some understanding of what a memory palace is already, this no-nonsense guide has some useful tips. Don’t expect to find any detailed explanations of what a memory palace is, what it’s used for, why you might want one, or any history into their use as a memory technique. But if you already know these things, this ultra-short “crash course” may help you create better memory palaces.
The Memory Book, Tony Buzan
Whether this is your first book on memory techniques or your tenth, Buzan likely has something to offer that you haven’t encountered elsewhere. This is an excellent book, well written and packed with truly useful information for remembering “anything you want,” just like the subtitle says. Although I’ve read many books on memory recently, I nevertheless found Buzan’s approach inspiring and informative. And, despite some slightly snarky comments I’d encountered about Buzan in other people’s books, I didn’t find his style off-putting or overly egotistical. Yes, he trademarked his name. And of course he plugs Mind Maps, an approach to brainstorming that he is famous for promoting. But, as they say: It isn’t bragging if you’ve done it. And Buzan has done it.
Remember, Remember, Ed Cooke
This is not so much a book of memory techniques as it is a guide to developing linking stories/memory palaces to remember the information that is important to you. Cooke is truly inspired when it comes to crafting the kind of imaginative scenarios that are proven to help memories stick. Even if you don’t think you want to memorize the specific lists he explores here—US presidents, British kings and queens, etc.—I’d encourage anyone interested in memory techniques to read this just to see how Cooke does it. While some other writers on memory techniques talk about the importance of outlandish and over-the-top imagery—all delivered in dry, charmless prose—Cooke is truly an entertainer as well as an expert teacher.
Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer
For me, this book stands above all other books on memory techniques. Not because it takes a step by step approach to teaching those techniques; in some cases, other books do a better job of that. But this book walks the reader through a first-person account of what it is like to start from 0 and then go on to win a memory championship within a year. And because it’s written by a real journalist, you get solid reporting and—through endnotes, an extensive bibliography, and an index—invaluable information for taking your own memory knowledge and training to the next level. Written with skill and a healthy dose of humor, this book is highly recommended.
Remembering Willie Nelson: The Science of Peak Memory, Jeremy E.C. Genovese
This is clearly a passion project from an author fully committed to tracking down every angle and documenting his efforts. But if you have read any other journalistic memory book—as opposed to a first-person how-to—almost all of the information here will be familiar.
I wish I could end this review there. I can’t. Because if you believed that there is no need for proofreading in an age of spellcheck, this book is Exhibit A. I have no doubt that this book has been spellchecked; I don’t think I saw a single misspelled word. But the editing/proofreading was abysmal. There are multiple mistakes on every page: words missing, extra words, wrong words (e.g., “compassion” is used when the context suggests “comparison” as the correct word), and verbs/subjects not agreeing, missing/extra punctuation.
Pointing out these things is not nit-picking. When you’re encountering errors multiple times on every page, it affects your ability to read this book. Many sentences must be read multiple times in order to understand them. Then, three sentences later, you’re having to do it all over again.
I was a professional staff proofreader for three years for a book publisher. We were disappointed if even one error ended up in a published book. But this goes far beyond bad proofreading. It is shocking that the author—a college professor—could have written a text riddled with so many problems. Worse, he approved it for publication (since this is a self-published work).
If you are considering this book, be aware that it’s going to annoy and confound you. And know also that almost all of the information is available in other, professionally published books.
Unlimited Memory, Kevin Horsley
Many Amazon reviewers rave about this book, but I found it lacking in general information while overemphasizing (for me) self-help jargon and strategies. The author seems to equate the desire for memory improvement with the desire for a complete psychological makeover, stepping beyond the scope of “memory techniques” to promote a variety of self-help gurus and their books. As a result, there are very few details from his own experiences as a memory champion and very little exploration of memory techniques.
The Memory Code: The Secrets of Stonehenge, Easter Island, and Other Ancient Monuments, Dr. Lynne Kelly
For anyone interested in the history — and prehistory — of memory techniques as they were/are practiced by oral cultures, this is a must-read. The depth of the author’s research and analysis is impressive, as are the lives and memory achievements of the ancient peoples she describes. I especially appreciated the fact that Kelly is not only an academic, she is a memory enthusiast herself. That comes through very clearly in the writing.
Note, however, that because Kelly’s thesis—that these otherwise inexplicable ancient structures were actually memory aids for the preservation of entire cultures—is groundbreaking, it requires extensive scholastic support. As a result, there may be more archeological, sociological, and anthropological detail here than a casual memory enthusiast might want.
Mnemonics Memory Palace, Sjur Midttun
I appreciated this author’s enthusiasm, but I was turned off by his style. Too often he asserts that he’s “sure” the reader doesn’t know something or hasn’t been somewhere. There are also typos throughout and some careless errors—referring to the “presidents of North America” and stating that Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction occurred during an awards show. As for memory content, there is way too much filler and repetition.
How to Develop a Perfect Memory, Dominic O’Brien
This is perhaps the best, most comprehensive guide to memorizing specific types of information that I have yet encountered. Rather than focusing first on memory techniques, O’Brien considers what it is you want to remember—dates, sports stats, directions, trivia—and then presents his methods for committing those things to memory. Although his specific approaches do focus on the use of his DOMINIC system for remembering numbers, many can easily be adapted to the Major System instead. (A few, like memorizing chess games, which rely on having associations for letters of the alphabet not included in the Major System, would require either adopting DOMINIC or coming up with your own Major variation to accomplish the task.) Highly recommended.
Learn to Remember, Dominic O’Brien
I’m a fan of O’Brien, but this is not his best book on memory techniques. While the information here is solid, there just isn’t enough of it, and it doesn’t go into the kind of detail that most memory enthusiasts will want. For anyone who has read anything else on memory techniques, this will be a quick skim at best.
You Can Have an Amazing Memory, Dominic O’Brien
Highly recommended. O’Brien’s self-tests and personal approach make this one unique. His techniques may not suit everyone—he is known for favoring his own DOMINIC system over the Major System for recalling numbers—but they do work and may be just what a reader is looking for.
The Art of Memory, Frances A. Yates
This book is solidly written, though highly academic in its approach. It is focused entirely on the history of the memory palace from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance. (The emphasis is almost entirely on European cultures.) While often fascinating, it bogs down significantly, for me, in the middle and toward the end of the book as the author devotes multiple chapters to extensive, highly detailed analysis of two or three specific, historical memory palaces. Written by a scholar and researcher rather than someone who uses memory techniques personally. Recommended only for the serious student of history.