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Memory science book grew from Seattle Times parking rules

Former local columnist Terry McDermott stubbornly refused to pay for the privilege of parking in his employer's lot. Years later, America is fascinated by a book that grew out of his trying to remember the street parking spots he had found.

Do you remember one-time Seattle journalist Terry McDermott? The former Seattle Times columnist certainly recalls how his work at the newspaper, and his working conditions there, led to his hot new book, 101 Theory Drive: A Neuroscientist's Quest for Memory.

At the Times, McDermott, who spoke about the book at Town Hall on Wednesday (April 21), kept a list of possible column topics that included "Where is my car?" When he started at the Times, he had stubbornly refused to pay to park his car — it was to the paper's advantage to have writers bring their cars, he figured. So, he spent a lot of time going out to fill coins into meters, often having to struggle to remember where he had parked.

Years later, after a huge project at the Los Angeles Times related to 9/11 and his resulting first book, The Perfect Soldiers, McDermott was back at the L.A. paper and looking for a topic to dig into. He turned to a list of ideas and seized on the never-done look at what went into remembering where his car was.

He soon found perhaps the world's leading neuroscientist, Gary Lynch, working at, of all places, the University of California-Irvine in Orange County. Expecting to spend perhaps a few weeks delving into Lynch's research on memory, McDermott "just moved in ... they gave me a lab bench." He was there essentially every day in 2005, and a good part of 2006.

Without the support of the newspaper, McDermott said the other day in Seattle, "you could not afford to do that." He added, "Unless you get really lucky or are just really good," books like his deeply researched story — lived, really, since he came to be a part of Lynch's lab — of a wildly colorful scientist won't happen in the same way.

That's an even more worrisome thought when you consider what McDermott has brought us: a story that is of our time in so many ways. After long being viewed by much of academia as little more than a charismatic nuisance, or worse, Lynch can only be stopped from a Nobel Prize by death, McDermott believes. And Lynch's work on memory, how it works, and how it might be helped are critical to an era when so many people are living much longer. Plus, as more of the economy shifts to research, McDermott has provided a rare inside look at the people doing some of the best work in one field.

As McDermott notes, book publishing is in much the same sort of turmoil being experienced by the press and broadcasting. So, unless publishers are wild about a blockbuster author, the advances that help writers finish a project are also shrinking. It's enough to make anyone wonder how, in an era of more information, an undertaking like "101 Theory Drive" will happen.

In the meantime, though, readers gain from the kind of research that the Los Angeles Times supported and that, as McDermott says, Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen's parking policies helped inspire.

Terry McDermott will speak about 101 Theory Drive at Powell's Books in Portland at 7:30 pm Friday (April 23).

Joe Copeland is political editor for Crosscut. You can reach him at Joe.Copeland@crosscut.com.


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