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Book Review: Two Tales of "Jeopardy!"

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The competitive pursuit of trivia

By Emily Gordon
Special to Newsday

October 29, 2006

BRAINIAC: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, by Ken Jennings. Villard, 269 pp., $24.95.
PRISONER OF TREBEKISTAN: A Decade in “Jeopardy!,” by Bob Harris. Crown, 339 pp., $23.95.

The recital of known facts has often kept chaos at bay, but in a culture blanketed with “truthiness” and spin, Internet alter egos and reporters composing out-of-state bulletins from their living rooms, perhaps facts have become more important than ever. It seems wrong, then, to dismiss the precise naming of details from the world’s history of art, politics, science, technology, and so forth as mere “trivia,” a game as frivolous as Twister.

Bob Harris and Ken Jennings agree. Two high-profile stars of television’s “Jeopardy!,” they’ve each written about being on the show, but both books are really about the lives that went into the playing of this game—their own lives, certainly, but also the
millions of lives that made the games, the collation of facts and the facts themselves possible.

Ken Jennings is a name so revered (and feared) that there are several YouTube parodies of his 74-show winning streak; one animated short has mustachioed host Alex Trebek take him out with a handgun after a boyishly eager Jennings has gotten the question right one too many times. Jennings may have pummeled his opponents on the air with his clear head and quick thinking, but his tone throughout “Brainiac” is one of a properly humble guru, as well as that of a gentle investigator sharing his journey with his friend the reader.

Indeed, Jennings’ book - while it does include the tale of that famous winning streak—is much more concerned with how “Jeopardy!” and related tests came to be than in his personal journey, engaging as that turns out to be. He tracks trivia’s intellectual history back to 1691 and visits Stevens Point, Wis., host to the world’s biggest yearly trivia event. He also seeks out several quiz-show kings and queens, from “Jeopardy!” writers to champs of the past. A Mormon, Jennings and his unflaggingly supportive wife, Mindy, even brave a popular barstool video game he’s never encountered. As a bonus treat, every chapter’s end has the answers to all the footnoted, unanswered questions that have likely been stumping you as you read.

Jennings and computer programmer Bob Harris would likely never have met had they not both shared a “sponge-like brain” (as Jennings puts it); Harris, who’s worked in comedy, TV and radio and is an endearingly frank showman, may be a bit rough-and-tumble for Utah. Where Jennings’ storytelling is solid and focused, Harris’ is a jubilant Mexican jumping bean of digressions and asides. He seems to conceal nothing from us: his mad mental leaps of faith during a question, the books he’s never read whose key details he nonetheless knows by heart, the things that are worrying him even as he’s thumbing the buzzer, while the maddening “Think usic”—composed by Trebek himself—ominously ticks off the seconds.

Still, larger life events are never far from Harris’ thoughts, in particular his sister Connie’s frustratingly undiagnosed illnesses and the scary period in which Jane, by far the most serious of his girlfriends, undergoes breast cancer treatment. We even stop with him at his father’s grave; there are no simple relationships here, and perhaps the reliability of facts, if not always of memory (Harris won and lost and won again), was a good counterbalance to the rockiness of illness and family life.

Harris’ book has other pleasures to recommend it, like playful typographical representations of his digressive thought process (the letters get very, very small) and evocations of the trademark “Jeopardy!” screens both real and fanciful. Everything in Harris’ memoir is lighthearted and fast-paced, even when it isn’t. The revelation of his many mnemonic tricks will be a valuable addition to the “starter kit” of trivia-related books he includes, the bibles of hopeful future Harrises and Jenningses around the world.

“Jeopardy!” may be just a TV game show, but what do college kids doing Quiz Bowl, political bloggers fact-checking the hours away, stats-mad baseball fans, Supreme Court clerks and librarians have in common anyway? Love for truth is clearly one of the answers. Jennings puts it well: “As I stand behind a ‘Jeopardy!’ podium and answer question after question on cancer drugs and the civil rights movement and the
lives of Einstein and Gandhi and Mozart, I realize why the word ‘trivia’ is so inappropriate. It’s actually important to know who history’s great geniuses were, that some cancer is treatable, or that the civil rights movement happened.”

The waterfall of facts in “Brainiac” and “Prisoner of Trebekistan” may exhaust you, but it’s more likely to send you to an atlas, a newspaper, or a play. Trivia is the world we’ve been given, the one we want to hold on to, and it’s as precious as the water we drink.

Incidentally, by both accounts, Trebek is a lovely guy.

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