Brainiac : Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs
One day back in 2003, Ken Jennings and his college buddy Earl did what hundreds of thousands of people had done before: they auditioned for Jeopardy! Two years, 75 games, 2,642 correct answers, and over $2.5 million in winnings later, Ken Jennings emerged as trivia's undisputed king. Brainiactraces his rise from anonymous computer programmer to nerd folk icon. But along the way, it also explores his newly conquered kingdom: the world of trivia itself. Jennings had always been minutiae-mad, poring over almanacs and TV Guide listings at an age when most kids are still watching Elmo and putting beans up their nose. But trivia, he has found, is centuries older than his childhood obsession with it. Whisking us from the coffeehouses of seventeenth-century London to the Internet age, Jennings chronicles the ups and downs of the trivia fad: the quiz book explosion of the Jazz Age; the rise, fall, and rise again of TV quiz shows; the nostalgic campus trivia of the 1960s; and the 1980s, when Trivial Pursuitý again made it fashionable to be a know - it - all.
Did you know that Trivia was a Roman name for the goddess Hecate or that Jeopardy! tapes a week's worth of shows in a single afternoon Jennings's record-setting 2004 six-month stint on the syndicated TV quiz show won him $2.5 million and instant fame as he landed on Letterman, Leno, Sesame Street and Barbara Walters's "Ten Most Fascinating People" list. Sprinkling trivia questions throughout his first book, the former computer programmer is a charmingly self-deprecating guide to the subculture of esoterica as he relates how he answered his first trivia question about the Wright brothers at four and made his chops on the ego-driven college quiz bowl circuit; confides how he mastered the "tricky" Jeopardy! buzzers; bonds with professional trivia writers; and describes being bested by the puzzler "Most of this firm's seven thousand seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year" (Jennings answered FedEx; H&R Block is correct). You don't have to be a couch potato to answer this: what's an eight-letter word for a highly entertaining, fast-paced read that demystifies "America's most popular and most difficult quiz show" while pondering how trivia is a cultural phenomenon that offers a tidy alternative to life's messiness as well as instant camaraderie between people from different walks of life (Sept. 12) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 11, 2006
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Excerpt from Brainiac by Ken Jennings
Here's some trivia for you. The red rock country of southern Utah is red for the same reason that the planet Mars has a pinkish tinge when you see it in the night sky: both are loaded with iron oxide, a.k.a. ordinary household rust. The shadows of these red desert crags are lengthening toward our car as it pulls into a dusty gas station on the Utah-Arizona border. The air smells of diesel fumes and sagebrush when I open the passenger-side door. My friend Earl Cahill unfolds himself from the driver's seat, relieved we've made it to this, our last chance at gas for fifty miles.
Earl is my old college roommate, and though he's a remarkable six-foot-nine in height, he's one of those giants who hope that by holding their head and shoulders at just the right dejected angle, they may somehow if not disappear completely at least give the appearance of being only six-foot-four or six-foot-five. He blinks into the setting sun through the shock of floppy brown hair hanging over his face, a face that bears the perpetually disappointed look of an English foxhound or a Cubs fan.
As I pump gas, we reenact the ritual of all road-trippers since the days of Jack Kerouac, and try to figure out how we're going to divvy up the trip's costs. Unlike our beatnik freeway forefathers, however, Earl and I are both computer programmers, and we're driving down to Los Angeles not to hear jazz or harvest lettuce or watch the sun set over the Pacific, but to try to land spots on Jeopardy!, America's most popular and most difficult quiz show. Appropriately, geekily, we are squabbling about the most elegant algorithm to calculate and divide up our expenses.
"How about this?" I offer. "There's two of us, so that vastly improves our chances that one of us will make it on the show, right? And as we know, that person is guaranteed at least a thousand dollars, even if he finishes in third place. So here's what we do: we split all expenses when we get back, but if one of us makes it onto the show, that person pays for the other's share of gas and other expenses from this trip."
Earl's brow furrows, suspicious he's being conned.
"It's no-lose," I persist. "If you get on the show, you pay for all expenses, but you still turn a big profit from your winnings. The one who doesn't get on loses nothing."
"Deal," he finally agrees. We shake on it as we switch spots and climb back into the car. It is a no-lose scenario, but I'm guessing that I'll end up being the beneficiary of my own plan. Earl, I figure, is exactly the type game shows look for. Besides being incredibly smart and, as he likes to put it, "sideshow-freak tall," he has a booming baritone voice and an eccentric way of speaking an inside-joke-rich patois of computer-hacker lingo, Simpsons references, and, mysteriously, quotes from Merchant Ivory movies. He's exactly the kind of larger-than-life personality Jeopardy! needs a lock to get on the show. I figure I've just negotiated myself a free trip to L.A.