Moonwalking with Einstein

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I love participatory journalism. It has come to refer to bloggers and citizen journalists in recent years, but when I first heard the term it was being used to describe George Plimpton’s Paper Lion[1] or Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas[2]. There’s something exciting about non-fiction that still has a protagonist, but isn’t solely biographical. Biography often covers such a long portion of a person’s life that there can be no central story; people’s motivations and priorities change over time. Participatory journalism is necessarily a shorter arc, and is usually narrated by someone just starting out at a new activity, giving the reader a sense that she, too, could do what the protagonist does.

Sometimes these books wander away from straight facts, and sometimes it’s wholesale fiction -- my introduction to the genre was through Roald Dahl’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar[3]. No matter what the context, I love the way the authors weave together seemingly unrelated areas (as experts in any field can) to create a new narrative that changes the way I think about their subject. A. J. Jacobs has done two stints -- one year reading an entire encyclopedia, another living by the literal word of the bible. His reflections on vast works that everyone knows of, but no one reads gave me an appreciation for the strangeness of that sort of status in our culture.

Most recently I’ve been reading Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. He’s the younger brother of two literarily accomplished siblings[4]. In one year he becomes obsessed with the US Memory Championships and spends a year training for that contest, ultimately competing in its finals. He draws together oral traditions and how memory has evolved over time -- why, for instance, the Odyssey always refers to “Bright-eyed Athena” even when she is tired or weeping. Like all good participatory journalism it reads like a long story from a good friend who just came back from an adventure. I’d recommend it for the beach or the plane ride on the way.

[1] From Amazon: “In the mid-'60s, Plimpton joined the Detroit Lions at their preseason camp as a 36-year-old rookie quarterback wannabe, and stuck with the club through an intra-squad game before the paying public a month later.”
[2] Fear & Loathing is not participatory in the sense that he raced in his assignment’s putative subject (the Mint 400) but is instead about his experience getting so high that it’s often said that the most amazing aspect of the book is that he was able to write or remember anything at all.
[3] While technically a work of fiction, I don’t begrudge Dahl’s invention for its departure from reality. Henry’s Sugar’s ability to see through cards after 3 years of fierce concentration staring into a candle is not something I could ever achieve. Then again, the idea of going on a week-long drug binge in Las Vegas (and living to tell the tale), becoming a highly-paid escort in New York, or learning to memorize a deck of playing cards in 90 seconds all seem equally remote. I don’t discount Henry Sugar’s magical realism because all of this participatory journalism has an air of realistic magic to it.
[4] Jonathan Foer wrote Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close while Franklin Foer was the editor of The New Republic.


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