Friday, December 29, 2006

Trivia and Connectivity

I just finished reading Brainiac, the first book by my NAQT colleague Ken Jennings of Confessions of a Trivial Mind, and, of course, Jeopardy!. I plan to write a review, but it will have to wait until I'm back in Jerusalem, which won't be until New Year's Eve. Meanwhile, though, I thought one aspect deserved a post of its own:
"I've been noticing it more and more lately...At a time when, as Ed Goodgold pointed out, fewer common things connect us, trivia represents everything that can still bring people together...

"Time was, you knew and understood what everyone on your street did for a living. Next door was the bus driver, next to him the English teacher, next to her the pet-food salesman. Nowadays, half the time, Johnny Gilbert will announce the occupation of the contestant standing next to me and I'll have no idea what it even means. 'An information security analyst from Fishers, Indiana!' 'A senior production controller from Brooklyn, New York!' 'A consulting program manager from Watertown, Massachusetts!' These are narrow niches - each, I'm sure, with its own specialized vocabulary and set of procedures. When we speak to each other, we might as well be speaking entirely different languages.

"Trivia, as I've said before, shouldn't really be called 'trivia.' Facts about history, geography, books, movies, music - this is the stuff that used to be called good old-fashioned 'general knowledge,' the stuff that everybody was supposed to remember from school, regardless of their career niche. We lost something the more we specialized - it started to drain away this vast pool of information that everybody knew. Knowledge was what connected us, and now it distinguishes us.

"And so there's an immediate sense of camaraderie, of a created bond, that results when two people realize they own some piece of knowledge in common. It doesn't take much. If a stranger in an airport tells me that she's from Fargo, North Dakota - well, if I know nothing whatsoever about Fargo, North Dakota, that could be the end of the conversation right there. But trivia can come to the rescue. If I remember that Yankees great Roger Maris hailed from Fargo, I can ask her if she's ever been to the Roger Maris Museum. If I remember that Fargo sits on the Red River of the North, I can ask her if she's ever fished the Red River...People are flattered that you know something about them: their profession, their hobby, their hometown. It's as if you took the time to get to know them before you even met...

"It sounds Coke-jingle naive, but maybe if we shared more of the same general knowledge, the way we used to, then we wouldn't have so many of the communication breakdowns we see today...If more of us enjoyed 'trivia,' - that is, knowing a little bit about everything - we would know more about one another, and therefore might all get along better."

These musings come in a chapter about the relationship of trivia with nostalgia as people collectively strive to remember common experiences. However, the idea of knowledge as something that builds relationships is found throughout the book, as he notices people getting together in pubs, around Trivial Pursuit boards, or in city-wide trivia tournaments. It even comes up at the end of the book, when he recounts musing with his wife that they understood their compatibility early in their relationship through bits of trivia they both knew.

So what do people think? Does trivia form connective glue for people in the modern United States?


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