Book Report: Brainiac

brainiacpbsmall“Game shows, like trivia, also offer a tidier alternative to life in that they reward nothing but skill and talent. In a world where the wrong people are forever getting ahead because of robber-baron ruthlessness, or accidents of birth, or coincidences of class or color or creed, quiz games offer a beguiling alternate reality where no one cares whether or not you went to Exeter or who married the boss’s niece. Could trivia be America’s last meritocracy left standing?” (Brainiac, p80)

Title: Brainiac – Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs

Author: Ken Jennings

Publisher: Villard

Publication Date: 2006

Origin: Reading Brainiac, and following Ken Jennings on Twitter, were recommendations made by my colleague Jesse Ariss. Thanks!

Summary: Brainiac is really two stories in one:

  • Ken’s own experiences during his 2004 run on Jeopardy!, when he shattered records and captivated millions of viewers
  • The story (e.g., history, cultural significance, world) of trivia itself

Ken tells his own tale, from hopeful try-out to first game to record-breaking run, and throughout weaves in the history of trivia itself, making stops at trivia events, reminiscing about College Bowl, and exploring the very meaning of trivia.

I probably haven’t done it justice, but … just trust me.

My Take: Friggin’ loved it.

Ken’s funny as hell (I think non-nerds would find him funny, but I can’t say for sure), which probably makes Brainiac accessible even to the trivia layman. For instance, here are the opening words: “A book about trivia has, potentially, the same problem that rock criticism or a sex manual does; it’s never as much fun as the real thing.”

Seriously, that’s how he starts. And it’s like that throughout.

Personally, Ken had me revisiting my own experiences in trivia: from just being a (probably annoying) know-it-all in my earlier (I hope) years, to channeling my prowess in things like School Reach (a high-school team-based quiz league), to some other local radio station-hosted trivia contest I did in high school, to playing in the Genius Bowl at the University of Waterloo…to probably some others that I’m forgetting.

But more than that, he did what I wasn’t thought possible: he increased my appreciation for trivia.

Yes, Dan, perhaps I can finally be talked into forming a trivia team for some local pub night.

Oh, and for anyone else scoring at home, I got a (respectable? disappointing? paltry?) 55/170 (32.3%) on the trivia questions included throughout.

Read This Book If: …you like trivia or knowing stuff about trivia (I assume you’ve already read it if you’re a Ken Jennings fan).

Notes and Quotes:

  • For anyone who thinks this is gonna be a lame nerd book written by a nerd, for nerds, you get an immediate sense that it’s actually gonna be quite funny. pXI: “A book about trivia has, potentially, the same problem that rock criticism or a sex manual does; it’s never as much fun as the real thing.”
  • Note to self and Duench, the font used in Jeopardy! is Korinna
  • Ken Jennings is a man after my own heart, p21: “In some perverse way, I’ve always enjoyed being tested.” I wrote about one such experience in this post.
  • This rings a bell from my own trivia days, p30: “Call it what you will – nervous reflex, anticipation, precognition, Spidey-sense – but the best players can somehow buzz with their thumbs before their brains have quite caught up. Knowing the right answer isn’t nearly enough, just as it’s not enough for a football player to memorize the drawn-up plays. You also have to be in the zone and execute.”

“The best players can somehow buzz with their thumbs before their brains have quite caught up. Knowing the right answer isn’t nearly enough.”

  • Trivia coach Eric Hilleman describes some of the benefits of trivia on p39: “(Eric) also believes that the framework of knowledge he learned from quiz bowl has helped him to learn all kinds of things more easily.’It’s like your mind is a net, trying to catch all this information whizzing by. The more facts you know, the tighter the mesh of the net is, and the easier it is to retain the new things you’re trying to learn.'”
  • p55 talks about the earliest roots of trivia, in the commonplace books of Olde England
  • p57, I’ve wondered this myself: “Is there something about trivia that attracts the dabbler, the perpetual student, because it offers the illusion of real intellectual mastery?”
  • I just really enjoyed this passage, from p80

“I suspect that this is why trivia, in general, appeals to so many of us. Unlike life’s messy questions and interwoven decisions, the answers in trivia are always clear-cut, as binary as an electric circuit. Right or wrong. One or zero. You can’t be sure that you shouldn’t have accepted that job in Fresno, but you can be 100 percent sure that the Munsters lived at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. You may never know if you handled things right with that girl who really liked you back in college, but you know for a fact that the word ‘Pennsylvania’ is misspelled on the Liberty Bell.

Game shows, like trivia, also offer a tidier alternative to life in that they reward nothing but skill and talent. In a world where the wrong people are forever getting ahead because of robber-baron ruthlessness, or accidents of birth, or coincidences of class or color or creed, quiz games offer a beguiling alternate reality where no one cares whether or not you went to Exeter or who married the boss’s niece. It all comes down to who can solve the puzzle, or can match the stars, or knows the actual retail price of the floor wax. Nothing else matters. Could trivia be America’s last meritocracy left standing?”

“In a world where the wrong people are forever getting ahead because of robber-baron ruthlessness, or accidents of birth, or coincidences of class or color or creed…could trivia be America’s last meritocracy left standing?”

  • p82 reminded me of the time my buddy Travis was on The Price is Right!
  • p98…not sure I’d heard of the Wicked Bible before, but I’m glad I have now
  • p104: “Libraries may be full of facts, but finding beautiful trivia in those dry, dusty stacks is like panning for gold. The glittering grains are few and far between. As the introduction to one early trivia book says, there is a difference between ‘the flower of trivia and the weed of minutiae.'”
  • p124: “Curiosity, memory, and a love for exhaustive, exhausting detail – that’s the trivia trifecta right there.”
  • p126, something all (us) trivia folks should keep in mind: “There’s a fine line between the joy of knowledge and the joy of being smarter-than-thou.”

“There’s a fine line between the joy of knowledge and the joy of being smarter-than-thou.”

  • I included a long (and fantastic) passage from p141 in the post Conversations, General Knowledge, and Your Career
  • p152: “Educator E.D. Hirsch coined the term ‘cultural literacy’ to describe the set of core knowledge that all of us need in order to navigate society. When you describe trivia as ‘random general knowledge about life,’ you realize that trivia knowledge is nothing but good, sound cultural literacy, though it may be dressed up in game show neon.”
  • p153: “Trivia, in other words, is the bait on the fishing rod of education.”
  • p154 builds on what was said on p39: “The more facts you accumulate, the easier it becomes to learn new things, because you have a web of knowledge to fit those facts into. Facts and intelligence form a vicious cycle.”
  • p156, quoting Esquire editor A.J. Jacobs, who explored the relationship between intelligence and knowledge in The Know-it-All: “Knowledge and intelligence are not the same thing, but they do live in the same neighborhood.”

“Knowledge and intelligence are not the same thing, but they do live in the same neighborhood.”

  • The story of how Trivial Pursuit came to be a cultural phenomena (or perhaps “fad” is more accurate) also shows the danger of hubris in business, p168: “A hoped-for spike in publicity never happened. Orders at toy fairs were almost nonexistent. Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers both turned the game down. It just broke too many rules. ‘We were the world’s largest game publisher,’ said one Milton Bradley executive. ‘We knew it all. First, we knew adults didn’t play games. We also knew no one would pay $29.95 to $39.99 retail.'” Trivial Pursuit went on to sell twenty-two million copies in 1984 alone, “a board game record by an order of magnitude” (p169).
  • p178: “Likewise, the mini-interview segment in the middle of the show was certainly not designed with the fifty-game champion in mind. I’ve run out of witty, charming things to say about myself after three shows, much less forty-three of them.
  • p179: “Despite all the quality time Alex and I have been spending together lately, he still seems a little chilly, as if he’s rooting against me. Is this just part of his constant saltine-dry impartiality? Does he think I’m bad for the show? Does he dislike sharing the spotlight with a sidekick? Or is he just plain sick of me? I feel like passing a junior-high mash note up to his podium. ‘Dear Alex. Do you like me? Check one. Yes/No.'”
  • I think there’s a lesson in here, somewhere, if you look hard enough. p185: “Jeopardy! is the first time in my life I ever dreamed an improbable dream and did something about it. It’s out of character for me. And yet somehow, the fourth-down gamble paid off. Here I stand, doing something I’m good at for a change – and the rewards have been hundreds of times greater than those for any of the safe, practical, responsible choices I’d spent the rest of my life making.”

“Jeopardy! is the first time in my life I ever dreamed an improbable dream and did something about it…and the rewards have been hundreds of times greater than those for any of the safe, practical, responsible choices I’d spent the rest of my life making.”

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2 comments on “Book Report: Brainiac
  1. […] recently finished Brainiac, by Ken Jennings. This passage from page 141 really resonated with […]

  2. […] Brainiac – Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs (Ken Jennings) […]

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