NPF: TRIVIAL PURSUITS

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 28th, 2012 by Ed

The past five months have been pretty rough for me, moving to a new city where I know exactly zero people and finding out that, well, there's nothing to do here. I could argue that in the global sense, but more specifically the two things I really liked doing when I lived in Georgia do not exist here in their proper form: comedy and trivia. While I miss both activities, it really bums me out to be without a decent trivia game because it's one of the precious few things in this world at which I am not completely terrible. In a better mood I might even describe myself as good at it. My memory is eerily good – not Rain Man good, but uncomfortably close – and over the years I've crammed a lot of facts into it. Recalling facts I read 20 years ago is not difficult, and I like nothing more than being forced to dig deep and exercise the brain a little. Shouting out the Jeopardy! answers in the gym just doesn't cut it after a while.

Whenever someone asks me "How/Why do you know that?" in response to some obscure and painfully uninteresting bit of knowledge I've just vomited at them, I never really answer the question (which is presumed to be largely rhetorical). But there is an answer, at least 95% of the time.

AJ Jacobs wrote a book recently (The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World) chronicling his quest to read the entire print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica from start to finish. Every word. He did it, and in the process he qualified for and appeared on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" and generally developed the habit of annoying people by continuously interjecting arcane and questionably relevant knowledge into his social interactions. I know how he feels. Reading the whole Britannica, however, strikes me as overkill.

If you want to become a trivia master or amaze/bore your friends and acquaintances alike with facts and anecdotes, here is my secret. As a child (and adolescent, and adult) I read and re-read all three volumes of The People's Almanac by David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace, along with their more well known Book of Lists series. They're mostly out of print, having been written in the 1970s – although they did write a somewhat shorter but still very good 20th Century history volume in 1999 – but I'm convinced that they are the best written, broadest, most eclectic, and most complete resource available for the person who desires a brain full of (largely) useless information. Science, movies, politics, history, religion, 19th Century circus performers, food, sports…you name it, it's in there. And in painstaking detail.

The real strength of the book is to combine narratives – the harrowing tale of Poon Lim, the man who survived on a life raft for 133 days after his ship was torpedoed – with dry facts about historical events or natural phenomena. I read these books to death as a kid despite their interminable length, and there are parts (like the aforementioned tale of Mr. Lim) that I can practically recite from memory decades later. Someday I hope to meet the authors and thank them; if not for them I might not know that osmium is the densest of all elements and it smells like shit.

Rather than link each book individually, here is the Amazon search for Wallechinsky and Wallace which will take you to the three Almanacs and the Book of Lists trilogy. Sure, you could stare endlessly at Wikipedia and hope the knowledge sinks in as you zip through the wormholes, but the books give you a guided tour of a hodgepodge of information. I understand if the thought of sitting down to read a reference book cover-to-cover is abhorrent, but what can I say. I was an awkward kid and I liked to read non-fiction. If you want a shortcut to cleaning up at bar trivia, this is the way to do it. Gin and Tacos is not responsible for the deleterious effects of fact-binging on your social skills.