Book Review: Brainiac by Ken Jennings (4/5)

13 Dec

I got this book for my mom years ago and I kept thinking that I’d like to read it at some point. I guess now is that point. I got a copy from the library (that just happened to be large print but whatever) and took it on vacation with me. It worked out perfectly that I finished it when I was waiting at the airport for my ride to pick me up and take me home.

Cover image via Goodreads

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

Summary from Goodreads:

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. Brainiac traces 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 Pursuit® again made it fashionable to be a know-it-all.
Jennings also investigates the shadowy demimonde of today’s trivia subculture, guiding us on a tour of trivia hotspots across America. He goes head-to-head with the blowhards and diehards of the college quiz-bowl circuit, the slightly soused faithful of the Boston pub trivia scene, and the raucous participants in the annual Q&A marathon in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, “The World’s Largest Trivia Contest.” And, of course, he takes us behind the scenes of his improbable 75-game run on Jeopardy!

But above all, Brainiac is a love letter to the useless fact. What marsupial has fingerprints that are indistinguishable from human ones?* What planet has a crater on it named after Laura Ingalls Wilder?** What comedian had the misfortune to be born with the name “Albert Einstein”?*** Jennings also ponders questions that are a little more philosophical: What separates trivia from meaningless facts? Is being good at trivia a mark of intelligence? And is trivia just a waste of time, or does it serve some not-so-trivial purpose after all?

* The koala
** Venus
*** Albert Brooks

This book was fun to read. Jennings bounced back and forth between his journey on Jeopardy! and trivia about trivia. He gave you ten trivia questions in each chapter with the answers on the last page, much like the book summary. It was fun guessing the answers as I went through so that I looked forward to reading more.

I thought Jennings portrayed himself in a very realistic way. He admits that he’s good at memorizing facts but that he’s not great at his job. He is passionate about trivia, not computer programming. He’s realistic about his parenting and his son. It’s hard to know a lot about a person from watching them on a trivia show and reading their tweets, but I felt like the Ken in this book was the Ken I knew from Jeopardy!

I love collecting fun facts, though I’m no trivia wiz and only lasted one Quiz Bowl meeting. I related to his excitement at hearing something new for the first time. I got emailed 116 new fun facts today and it was the highlight of my morning. I understood the distinct difference between his passion and his job. I liked how he wasn’t afraid to let his ‘nerd flag fly,’ something I’ve been working on lately.

Ken Jennings
Image via the AV Club

I liked the narration of Ken’s time on Jeopardy! I think it’s interesting he focused most on his first and last games. I think those would stick in your mind best so it made sense to me. I liked how he wrote about Nancy, who beat him. It was very complimentary and not hostile. He wasn’t angry that he lost and recognized that he was simply bested.

I thought some parts about the history of trivia and the books that had been published about it were a bit dull. I enjoyed the anecdotes about Stevens’ Point Wisconsin and A.J. Jacobs better. One chapter on history would have been fine, but I think there were three and that was a bit much.

Jennings dove into a subject many people don’t think about. For many, Jeopardy! is something to watch after dinner while you have dessert or while you iron (my mother). For some, it’s a life goal and an obsession. I feel that I have a niche obsession sometimes (Harry Potter, Titanic, books) but when I go somewhere that attracts those same people (Universal, museums, libraries), I don’t feel as alone. I think this book would help those who might feel their trivia obsession isn’t as accepted as some others and I liked celebrating that with Ken.

Writer’s Takeaway: I loved the trivia questions in the back! It was so appropriate to bring trivia into a book about trivia. I know it’s not feasible to do this for every non-fiction topic, but it can be done. Swim workouts in a swimmer memoir, book recommendations when talking about publishing. It works sometimes!

I really enjoyed this fun read. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
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Book Report: Brainiac | Leadership, Marketing … and Everything

2 Responses to “Book Review: Brainiac by Ken Jennings (4/5)”

  1. Rae Longest December 13, 2018 at 4:17 PM #

    Someone donated this book to my LFL, but I skimmed part, and never could get into it. Perhaps had I read it when the phenomenon was going on on Jeopardy, I would have been more interested. Your review, however was well done (as always!).

    Like

    • Sam December 17, 2018 at 1:00 PM #

      Thank you! I think having watched Ken through his streak kept me more interested than a lot of other readers may be. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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