Brainiac by Ken Jennings
I have a similar attitude towards game shows and Mormons, i.e. what you get up to in the privacy of your own home is your business, just don’t expect me to watch.
So I didn’t have high hopes for my enjoyment of a book written by the holder of the longest winning streak on Jeopardy! who also happens to be a Mormon!*.
How wrong I was. It turns out I have quite a lot in common with Ken Jennings, not the least of which is watching Gilmore Girls, using too many Simpsons references, a deep enjoyment of trivia, a slight attention problem, a bit brainy, a bit of a lost soul when it comes to “career aspirations”… and then there’s this:
Am I the only one who turns straight to the Acknowledgements page of a book as soon as I buy it?
Brainiac is the story of Jennings journey to Jeopardy! as well trivia in general. Jennings, despite being a self-professed “trivia nerd” and never having gotten drunk in his life (that Mormon thing), is tremendously funny, combining self-deprecation with a deep appreciation for the absurdities of life.
Up until now, when I read about Mike’s Jeopardy! preparation, it always struck me as a trifle overzealous, or, to put it another way, “bat-shit insane.”
His Jeopardy! winning streak lasted a quite stunningly ridiculous 75 games so this is a man who has brains and a knowledge of popular culture that made me feel at home.
I give us about ten minutes before the Monty Python sketch-quoting begins.
And then he includes a quote from my favourite movie ever!
To quote Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, on a slightly more statutory subject: “I get older; they stay the same age.”
Along the way Jennings takes a journey through the history of trivia and our society’s fascination with it, and gives some insider knowledge of where the serious trivia happens, i.e. College Quiz Bowls, pub quizzes and game shows. He also spends time giving some serious thought to what trivia means, and especially what it means who share in the fascination.
…the more facts you accumulate, the easier it becomes to learn new things, because you have a web of knowledge to fit those new facts into. Facts and intelligence form a vicious circle.
This kind of writing is so enjoyable, combining personal experience, journalistic enquiry, history, and a smattering of philosophy.
My parents were also very patient with the litany of trivia these gifts produced during long car trips.
“Hey, Mom! Do you know what color a polar bear’s skin is? No, black! Hey, Mom! Three-quarters of the dust in our house is from dead human skin cells, ewww! Hey, Mom! Guess how big the world’s biggest pumpkin pie was. Not even close, 418 pounds!
Surprisingly I survived many of these car trips without being beaten mercilessly.
Above all Brainiac contains two of the best trivia facts I’ve ever heard, ones which will stay with me forever.
- Opossums have thirteen nipples.
- René Descartes had a fetish for cross-eyed women.
*Ungrammatical exclamation marks would just make any religion more fun. The Exclusive Brethren! Or, better yet The Exclusive! Brethren. This doesn’t, however, work for question marks. The Exclusive Brethren?