The first time we meet Josh Foer he is in front of a television crew, trying to memorise in under five minutes the order of two shuffled decks of cards using a mnemonic system that features Michael Jackson (the king of hearts) defecating (two of clubs) onto a salmon burger (king of clubs) while the bartendress from Cheers (queen of spades) is pleasuring a Sudanese basketball player (seven of clubs). What follows is a labyrinthine personal journey that explains how our author ended up in the finals of the US Memory Championship – a compelling story arc from sceptical journalist to dedicated participant. I can’t remember when I last found a science book so intriguing.
As a Yale graduate aged twenty-five, nerdish and averagely absent-minded, Foer is initially drawn to the Borgesian hinterland of ‘mental athletes’ in order to write a magazine article. Interviewing some of the world’s leading mnemonists – such as arch self-promoter Tony Buzan and the flamboyant student Ed Cooke