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Friday, September 21, 2007

Brainiac

by Ken Jennings

Why? I bought this book at the Salt Lake Book Festival last fall after listening to Ken Jennings talk. He was so personable and funny. I was entirely captivated so I bought his book and asked him to sign it. Very cleverly, he signed it "Who is Ken Jennings?"

What? The book talks about Jennings' experiences trying out for and being on Jeopardy for 6 months. It was interesting to read about the regulations and the contracts that contestants must sign. They can't tell anyone about their experience until after the show airs, which is usually 3 months after taping. So here's a guy with a family and a job who has to fly to L.A every Tuesday and, in Jennings' case, stay until Thursday and he can't tell anyone! I can't imagine how difficult that must have been. And then after the first show airs, how do you not let it slip that you're still making new shows and that you've won big sums of money?

What did I like? I liked that Jennings doesn't just linearly tell his Jeopardy story. Instead, he weaves it over, under and through interesting history and trends in trivia. Did you know that in the mid-1800's a a man named Timp published trivia books. Wilkie Collins wrote an essay in which he describes using some of Timp's trivia at dinner parties.

Each chapter title is a question: What is Ambition? What is Cognition? What is Tradition? and so on. And each chapter has several questions to test the reader's trivia prowess. That was fun, even though I could only answer about half the questions.

I enjoyed reading about the bumpy emergence of Trivial Pursuit, bar trivia games, and the city of Stevens Point, Wisconsin the trivia capital of the world. Stevens Point has an annual 54-hour trivia game. Wow!

Anything else? Let me leave you with one philosophy of two guys talked about in the book. (How's that for specific?) These guys contend that good trivia questions are based on nostalgia. People like to be reminded of their common cultural heritage. This type of nostalgia trivia worked well in an era when the three TV choices on Sunday evening were Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen or Maverick. When Jennings asked if they thought this type of trivia would ever ebb to another high in America they said the didn't think so. There reason, "What makes us Americans, in a certain way, is the centrality of popular culture. It ties us together. The explosion of TV channels and fragmentation of popular music genres have changed all that. There's so much more out there, that there's less that people share. As a result, we have less of a strong, unifying cultural force in society in general. Things that used to be very, very deep cultural reference points don't mean anything at all nowadays."

10 comments:

Framed said...

I'm glad you like the book. I thought he was absolutely charming. You answered half the questions?? I was lucky to get one right each chapter. My favorite parts were of the quiz bowl competitions. Those kids were amazing.

Alyson said...

This sounds interesting. I thought so last year when you bought it too. He must have been able to tell his wife about still being on Jeopardy at least, or did the book say he didn't tell her either?

hellomelissa said...

i would never have thought to read this book. but the guy must be really interesting since his brain is so full of facts!

Booklogged said...

Framed, the quiz bowls were very fun. There were so many things I've thought about since writing the review. Interesting book.

Alyson, he did tell is wife and they eventually told his boss. Can you imagine winning on Jeopardy even once and not being able to tell anyone?

Melissa, I don't think I'd been tempted to buy or read this book either if I hadn't heard Jennings talk. He was just so charming.

Bybee said...

I was watching Jeopardy! everyday when this charming, redheaded guy came on and would not stop winning. The show hasn't been the same since. I looked for Brainiac when I was in the States but didn't see it.

raidergirl3 said...

I love trivia. There are trivia contests in bars here on the weekends, you make teams and work together. My husband and I used to play a lot before we had kids. We can't seem to find the time to hang out in bars on Saturday afternoons or evenings anymore.
And we were very good. We won a league once.:)

Cereal Girl said...

I think the point about no shared cultural references is extremely valid. Where I live there is so much media (radio, local TV, satellite TV, public stations, campus stations) and people are so specialized in their listening and viewing -- there are many, many pay TV stations in international languages, for example -- that it's difficult to define our national identity. (I'm talking about Toronto, Ontario, Canada -- I know most book bloggers live in the USA.)

alisonwonderland said...

i read Brainiac earlier this year and absolutely loved it! i'm glad you enjoyed it too! (i wish i'd heard Jennings speak; i can just imagine how fun that would be!)

Les said...

I've had this book on my library list for several months now. I was originally going to get it for my husband to read, but now I'm curious and may have to read it myself! Thanks for the great review.

Lotus Reads said...

I remember your post about listening to Ken Jennings speak and what high expectations you had for the book. I'm glad it didn't disappoint. I love the review and am very tempted to pick this book up...I also love the review format!