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.

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30 thoughts on “NPF: TRIVIAL PURSUITS”

  • I know exactly how you feel (I was nicknamed "Google" in a previous workplace). As a teenager I read most of the Britannica, but never cover to cover. Whenever a school assignment required encyclopedic browsing, I would find myself reading page after page, way past the actual stuff I needed to.

    But I think your shortcut leaves out on a couple of important details: first, you need to _want_ to remember this stuff, and second you need to _be able_ to remember it. Learning memory-enhancement techniques is not that hard, but it takes effort and time. The other part, I think, is what makes the "trivia lords" different than other people- they are just so interested in everything, that the mind has a baseline desire to remember stuff. Without that baseline, without that passion, the long-term memory-recording chain just doesn't work as well.

  • You missed a few other important facts about osmium: it will blind you by reacting with the water in your corneas to dye them black. And then shortly you will die from the same process occurring in your lungs.

  • Ed, you speak to me with this post, in a way that few have done. I relocated within the last few years to a town where comedy and trivia are actually more plentiful than where I grew up, but people here keep referencing SNL and Dane Cook, so I'm doing what I can within my limited sphere of influence.

    Almost immediately, I earned the nickname "Data" at my workplace, for becoming a resource for knowledge that wasn't immediate in anyone else. Since then, because my name is Nicholas, when I correctly point out in conversation that one of my closest friends is incorrect on the facts, he sometimes smirks, and accuses me of "Nickpicking".

    It's the life we lead, brother.

  • In high school we had this thing called "Knowledge Bowl…" a thoroughly nerdy team-based trivia game far more satisfying than Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit. The best part was we could have a few alternates on each team, so out of about 25 regulars at practice we took a core group of I think 15 to Regionals and State, three people at the buzzers at a time, up to 3 teams competing,, each in a different room, faced off against two other 3-person teams. A well-balanced team could crush, we had the guy who really knew Shakespeare, Greece and Rome, and World War 2… the guy who could do complex math in his head… and I don't really remember if I had a specialty, I think I just had a knack for holding onto the exceptionally "trivial" nuggets and a feel for making a solid guess.

    These days my job is to be the guy who remembers things in a tiny tech company, so I don't get shit for it, because nobody notices. I don't think anyone in the building has read a book of any kind in the last decade… there is the one guy who has told me the story of the Potato Famine three times, he saw it on Discovery or Nat Geo or something.

  • Another source that is great for useful/useless trivia is 'The Clothes Have No Emperor' by Paul Slansky. It is a day by day account of the Reagan presidency, with short blurbs about the bizarre, funny, crazy and criminal stuff that occurred. But while it is about the Reagan administration, it also includes local political scandals, all the bizarre religious wacko scandals-PTL, etc., and major pop culture stories too. It's just an incredible summary of the 1980s that has paid off for me many times at pub trivia.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Yeah, Ed, I read those too, when I was younger.
    I also used to keep a dictionary, and/or a volume of an encyclopedia, in the john with me, for much of my life.

    We men take an inordinate amount of time in the john, pooping, especially me, or so I've been told by girlfriends – but at least I could say I was doing something fairly productive: that I was absorbing new sh*t, as I was expelling some old sh*t.
    Actually, like most men, I think, we prefer to stay in the john much longer than we actually need to – and, until people started putting TV's in bathrooms, what better thing to do in there, but read? (No TV in MY johns – ever! Crank up the FM radio, back in the day? Yeah! But no TV!!!).
    And what's not to love about sitting in the bathroom?
    We're on a throne, we're alone, and so there's no one we need to talk to, or to bother us. And we'll stay in there as long as we want, or can – until we get bored, or unless there's someone else needs to borrow our throne.
    Yeah, I know – TMI!

    And every bar I used to go to, or work in, I used to try to get people to watch and bet on Jeopardy. And that would work for about a week or two, until people got tired of handing their money over to me.

    No one ever defeated me in the original version of Trivial Pursuits.
    However, as I've aged, while I can hold my own in Geography, History, Art & Lit, Science & Nature, and do ok on old mainline Sports, I think any half-bright teenager might be able to whip my ass in any updated versions, since I don't know anything anymore about pop culture, or X-game sports, since:
    -I no longer watch much TV, except for sports, some MSNBC – and Stewart and Colbert, of course! And I've never watched more than a minute or two of "Reality TV," before either switching channels, or turning the TV off in disgust.
    -I don't go to any new movies (or rent them).
    -I don't know much of anything about the latest music, because I don't listen to it.
    -And I sure don't know anything about "extreme" sports.

    Here's what I used to keep in the john while I was working, and could afford to buy books – "Uncle John's Bathroom:"
    Great stuff!

    Now, I keep a copy of an old Baseball Almanac, as well as an old dictionary.
    What I've never been able to figure out, is how a mathematically challenged guy like me, can figure out Baseball stats in a nano-second, and remember them?
    Oh well, that's a thought for another day

  • I agree about the Wallace/Wallechinsky books, except that they're good for more than trivia. Naive as I was, I remember being brought up short by two separate sections on their alphabetical run-down of nations, each with a separate section for "Who Rules" and "Who REALLY Rules." Two separate heading, i.e., the government and the uber-government. "Can they really print that?" I wondered. So some of the entries were penetrating, not just trivial glosses.

    I notice I have one of their books, The People's Almanac Presents the 20th Century, that isn't at amazon. Maybe it's not as good as the others, hence out of print, but a quick check of the contents (i.e., Leisure Activities and Fads, Famous Last Words, 12 Travesties of Modern Medical Science) suggests I should read it again. Wonder if they're on ebooks. Could be good for plane travel.

  • I wonder what Ed means when he refers to playing trivia. I love trivia too…and 90% of my trivia playing is done at my local BDUBS or another sports bar close by (NTN Buzztime Trivia). Does Ed live in a area so remote that none of the bars, assuming there are any bars whereever he lives, have Buzztime trivia? I assume anything Farmington MO has is in every town, I could be wrong.

  • I grew up a short distance away. I swear I was adopted since my genetic predisposition did not endow a love of buffet restaurants. Lived in your town for several months until I was transferred for work again. The most positive thing I can say is, at least you're not in Decatur.

    Go up to Starved Rock on the weekends. It helps.

  • I do love pub quiz and Jeopardy, along with pretty much any trivia game show that happens to come on while I'm flipping channels. Though not a trivia book per se, I would highly recommend "Brainiac" by Ken Jennings, for its exploration of the phenomenon of trivia and of the people who are obsessive about it. Plus it's pretty funny.

  • I used to read the encyclopedia when I was a kid. The dictionary, too. Sadly, my brain is a sieve, so none of that geeky study has paid off.

  • mel in oregon says:

    a friend who came from a very humble background & later developed software that made him a multi-millionaire shared some info. he said places mean different things to different strata of people. for instance he had live in nyc, la, miami & denver both poor & wealthy. he said, those cities are great places to live if you are well off, total shitholes if you are poor. aint it the truth.

  • Ken Jennings talked a bit about this at his "Authors at Google" appearance a few weeks ago:

    Obviously that was a very nerd crowd, and the audience and Ken each approached the topic at a rather high level, discussing memory optimization methods, the continued relevance of factual memory in the world of Google & Wikipedia, et cetera.

  • Andrew Laurence says:

    Have you heard of Learned League? It's a league for fans of very hard trivia, and it's by invitation only. I'd be honored to use my one-per-season invitation to invite you to the next season. All that they require is that you not forfeit (i.e., that you submit your answers each day by 10PM Pacific time, approximately 24 hours after the questions are sent out) and that you not cheat (by asking others, Googling, etc.). Membership dues are pay what you want – I think I kick in about $20/year.

  • I know I've missed something important because I'm only an occasional visitor here, but Ed if you live anywhere near Nashville TN you should know that Jeopardy! is holding auditions here in January. Since you're a trivia buff and Jeopardy! is nothing but a glorified trivia game, maybe if you're in driving distance you can check it out.

  • I used to have the Book of Lists and the most memorable one was a series of lists for the "Most Admired Person in the World" from several years in the 70's. In each list OJ Simpson was the #1 most admired person in the world, beating out, if I remember correctly, Gandhi.

  • If you want to be really boring in any company, copyedit academic books for a few decades. Stuck in the back of my brain are thousands or millions of obscure bits of data and arcane theories, one of which can be declared relevant to any conversation. I start off, "Interestingly, . . ."

    And yes, the People's Almanac was terrific.

  • Ed,

    If there's a derth of trivia in your town why not be the one who sells it? Certainly you could become the town know it all and run the comps. It's a university town, and any pub would be able to pack em in for a plate of wings, jug and trivia. Because students are looking for any excuse to not study.

    Added income to you Ed.

  • Dearest Ed,

    You don't know me from Adam but I think I can help you. We are similar in many ways from an overly-developed intellect to a sullen worldview. I ask you to step outside yourself and view your surroundings as if you were an anthropologist viewing a new culture never before seen by modern man. Adapt to the culture before you and study it while doing your best to camouflage your efforts.

    What you will find are interesting people who know genuinely cool information that you have never thought about and you will learn secret cocktails that you never knew existed. More importantly, you will remove the giant stick of expectation and privilege from your ass and start appreciating regular (non-brilliant) human beings for the esoterica that simply does not exist in academia. Oh, any you will also get laid… a lot.

  • Ed,

    Bob Dylan addressed this years ago in Tombstone Blues –

    "Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
    That could hold you dear lady from going insane
    That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
    Of your useless and pointless knowledge"

  • How unusual, that I'm quite the outlier among this crowd…

    My memory for static facts is so bad, that I was barely pulling a "C" in my H.S. Freshman history class. Then came the pop quiz, which asked me to explain some event, causes, catalysts, bulwarks, interests of the contained parties…and I wrote a detailed essay (to my the single paragraph from my peers) that had me defending against accusations of cheating. I can remember processes or sequences or causes, and I can remember facts if those facts will be useful in sequencing, as well. [So, I have trouble remembering specific dates, unless it's part of a series of dates that have sequential meaning.]

    Despite this, I'm well above average at most trivia games. I suppose enough things interest me, and I've been alive for a while to absorb information that may be useful, in the future.

    Oh, and I poop pretty quickly, with no reading material. [But my son['s there to pull the average the other way for us…]

    Some of the books listed here seem downright interesting, and it also looks like I may be able to retain some of the information. The stack's higher, today.

  • Great call on the "Book of Lists" Ed. I remember perusing them and different World Almanacs/Atlases for hours on end (hey, it was the pre-internet 1970's). Thankfully I was fortunate to grow up in a family that put a premium on reading and had a lot of these resources lying about the home.

    I too am considered the 'walking encyclopedia" on arcane (and some relevant) info by friends, fellow teachers etc…how come I ain't rich???

  • I was always fascinated by the general reference books of the late 19th and early 20th century, back when people thought you could put down everything known in a book like the Encyclopedists in France. Some of them had a lot of charm. The Universal Self Instructor would go on about parlor games and home life, then have a section with different kinds of good and bad husbands and wives where a few paragraphs could stand in for a Victorian novel. The bookkeeping and correspondence sections told entire life stories like Alan Ryna's collected prefaces. Haydn's dictionary of dates was equally fascinating, a complete hodge podge and so focused on The Empire, even in the American edition, that it was almost humorous. How much tea in China? Who cares? How much tea in Kent? That's a different story. By the 1920s, these books were usually aimed at children rather than grownups, and we've found them useful for teaching things like fractions and long division that the schools neglect these days.

    Wikipedia in some ways is a throw back to the complete hodge podge days. There is no sense of overall structure, and anyone who tried to insert a clever narrative into some informational article would probably be slapped down by the moderators as frivolous. I remember the Book of Lists and the like, but, like many, I don't absorb facts in isolation. Ask me about the history of chemistry or the law of serfdom though, and you'll imagine me a great collector of useless trivia.

  • Mom Says I'm Handsome says:

    I read, and reread, and reread, the People's Almanac while I was a young teenager living in remote Indonesia while my dad worked at the local nickel mine. I credit my atheism to it: I couldn't read the section on comparative religion without being left with the question, "If all of these faiths claim to be true, and they're obviously contradictory, is it possible none of them are true-with-a-capital-T?"
    And thanks for the reminder about osmium…

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