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Ken Jennings – Brainiac

March 30, 2008

40. Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs by Ken Jennings (2006)

Length: 269 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction; Memoir

Started: 30 March 2008, lazing in bed in the morning
Finished: 30 March 2008, over dinner

Summary: Ken Jennings is a record-holding nerd celebrity, winning on the quiz show Jeopardy! for an unprecedented seventy four games in a row. This book is partly a memoir of that time, but is mostly a book about trivia itself – its history, its format, its current incarnations, its relationship to intelligence, and the various ways in which it is enjoyed by people, and the various people who are serious about their trivia obsession in ways that the casual Trivial Pursuit player or Jeopardy! watcher can scarcely imagine.

Review: In the summer of 2004, when Ken Jennings’s winning streak started, the local NBC affiliate aired Jeopardy! right at dinnertime, and since our dining room table was usually covered with mail, newspapers, journal articles and other miscellany, my roommates and I would watch every night, plates balanced on our laps as we shouted answers at the screen and tried to guess the “Final Jeopardy” answer from the category alone. (I’ve only ever gotten this right once, with “Louisa May Alcott”; one of my roommates pulled down two correct answers that summer alone.) In any case, I was watching during Ken Jennings’s first game, I nearly asphyxiated from laughter during the infamous (among nerds, anyways) “hoes” incident (and if you know who Ken Jennings is but don’t know what I’m talking about, I highly suggest you go watch the clip), and I was watching when he finally lost.

So, I was a little disappointed when this book turned out to be not really much of a memoir. He hits all of the salient points – audition, contestant call, first game, media attention, finally losing – but details from his time “in the trenches” is are pretty slim pickings, and all of the autobiographical sections from his time on the show are interspersed with longer bits about the history of trivia and some current forms that trivia-buff-ish-ness takes around the country. Ken in writing comes across very much the same as Ken on TV – a generally mild-mannered, affable, humble guy, so maybe he thought that no one would want to read a book about him, but I wound up wanting less details about the organization of national college bowl leagues and more dirt about what it’s really like behind the scenes at Jeopardy!.

This book seems like it’s going out of its way not to duplicate any of the information from its contemporaneous Jeopardy! book, Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris, but I think that was a mistake – it’s a story that I’d happily read twice from the two different perspectives. Brainiac is a book about trivia with a memoir thrown in, while Trebekistan is a memoir with some stuff about trivia thrown in, and the later comes off stronger and more engaging (and funnier, although I think that’s due to writing style, not subject matter). Brainiac is an interesting, easy, light read, but I don’t think that it’s the Ken Jennings book that Jeopardy! fans were hoping to read. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Interesting enough light non-fiction, and Jeopardy! fans will probably enjoy it for what it is, despite it not quite having the charm or insights of Prisoner of Trebekistan.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

First Line: 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.

Vocab:

  • p. 34: “He used to write College Bowl thirty-page letters after each tournament, listing all the problems he saw with their questions. Eventually these jeremiads became so well known that some began to call problematic College Bowl material “Frazee Unfair Questions,” or FUQs.” – A literary work or speech expressing a bitter lament or a righteous prophecy of doom.
    .
  • p. 106: “A thousand different decisions might go into a simple one-line question: the form isn’t long, but it’s demanding. It’s a little like writing a poem in a rigorous straightjacked of a verse form, like a villanelle or a haiku.” – a short poem of fixed form, written in tercets, usually five in number, followed by a final quatrain, all being based on two rhymes.
    .
  • p. 139: “Suddenly I’m interested – I may be no oenophile, but I’m a screenophile, and some of my favorite movies were directed by Francis Ford Coppola.” – a person who enjoys wines, usually as a connoisseur.
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