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

The Jeopardy! champ examines the history of trivia.

Despite the 25 percent to 60 percent ratings hike his winning streak provided, you may be one of the eight people who missed all-time Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings' 74 games back in 2004. Or maybe you never had a thing for Alex Trebek's institution to begin with. Or, perhaps, you're disdainful of trivia—and knowledge—in general. Who wants to see nerds name-drop horses from the Byzantine Empire, much less read about someone who did just that for six months? Yet that amazing record on Jeopardy! wouldn't have been such a cultural milestone if the "Opie-looking guy," as Jennings calls himself, weren't so ridiculously likable. (See interview below.) And Brainiac proves that his good nature and witty, self-deprecating humor successfully transfer from TV to print. Using his experience on the show— from audition to aftermath—as the narrative arc, Jennings expertly weaves in the nuts-and-bolts of trivia's social history and subcultures. Sure, it sounds a little dull to learn about John Timbs' Things Not Generally Known, the long-lasting impact of The $64,000 Question scandal, or the story behind academic quiz bowl fragmentation. But Jennings' innate curiosity, memory, and love for detail—what he calls the "trivia trifecta"—carry you along on his enthusiastic quest to find out how trivia has thrived from contests in bars to Snapple caps. His adventures take him to the field's top names, including The Know-It-All himself, A.J. Jacobs (the pair bonds over the fact that opossums have 13 nipples), former writers of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and the editor of brainy Mental Floss magazine (which now features a Jennings-penned column), and to Stevens Point, Wis., site of the annual 54-hour Trivia Parade. Jennings' personal history confirms his own "lifetime of general curiosity," and how a confluence of events—Jeopardy! was a cool topic on his fifth-grade playground—spawned both his superpower and lifelong dream. His uncanny memory provides countless gems, like a dizzying breakdown of the thought processes used to correctly deduce a Daily Double on medieval literary pairs he didn't know. Remarkably, after putting Jeopardy! into its modern historical context—and indirectly solidifying his status as all-time trivia king—he remains humble about his achievement, likening it to "coming out of the trivia closet on national TV." With Jennings' surprisingly contagious love of shared cultural knowledge, Brainiac is anything but trivial. KARLA STARR

 
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