Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Brainiac


This seemed like a fitting accompaniment to the earlier book I read about trivia. Trivia can be a life changing subject, just ask Ken Jennings. Of course, being LDS, I am always interested in a fellow church member who has had his fifteen minutes of fame and lived to tell the tale. And this was an interesting tale as well. Not only does he talk about his personal experience with trivia, but he travels around, with the purpose of expanding the subject of the book to all sorts of people whose lives are ruled by small, seemingly insignificant bits of information.
This ended up being one of those books that you read and then think, "People are crazy and weirder than I ever imagine." There is a small town that goes completely nuts over trivia once a year, a man who wrote trivia books, had to get a job as a civil servant, and now still collects bits of information for an omnibus book he will write "someday." There are people who have tried out for Jeopardy! six times and never made it to the show, not to mention the poor guys that were offered a spot, but couldn't play Mr. Jennings because they already knew him previously, so they had to wait six months or more for their chance because he kept winning.
In all this light hearted, but slightly scary story, I ran across a paragraph that I REALLY identified with. It was in the chapter where he is talking about the difference between a trivia master, and a very intelligent person. The conclusion reached is that they are not the same, but they live on the same block, to misquote something from the book.
He also mentions the social misfit nature of intelligent people, as well as the huge social misfit character of people who love trivia so much. Here is the quote:
Hacker-turned-essayist Paul Graham has also wondered why brains are the high school equivalent of leprosy. "Why don't smart kids make themselves popular?" he asks. "If they are so smart, why don't they figure out how popularity works and beat the system, just like they do for standardized tests?"
His answer is that nerds don't want popularity. The rules of the popularity contest are a constant burden, and the smart kids just don't have the time or the inclination. Even given the choice, they'd stay in the chess club. What's more, it doesn't matter, since the smart kids are the ones who will come out on top when everyone graduates and realizes that real life is nothing like high school. . . .
I'd like to believe Graham's theory, but I know from experience that if there's one variety of nerd who sometimes unwittingly brings his isolation upon himself, it's the trivia know-it-all. Most of the contestants I meet on Jeopardy! are successful, interesting people, but from time to time there's an unbearable show-off, not happy to be in a room of smart people unless he can establish that he's the smartest.

I remember getting good grades so that people, especially my teacher, would leave me alone. As long as I got A's I could pretty much do as I wished. Striving and working hard to impress others was not nearly as much a part of my high school experience as others I've heard talk about it. Not to say I didn't worry about my peers, I wasn't that abnormal, but I didn't let it active change my behaviour to suit their ideas.
Ryan has all the marks of someone who will suffer the same fate, though he longs for friends in a way that I never did. Perhaps I don't take his frustration on this point seriously enough because I got along fine and figure he will to. David makes up for my apathy though. We probably balance out. Another good reason for a two-parent household.

Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs. Ken Jennings. Villard. 2006

1 comment:

jendoop said...

Great insights into the book, and yourself. I certainly was no brainiac in high school but we all have periods of social isolation, so I can relate in some way.

Sorry that Ryan suffers for lack of friends, if we lived closer he'd always have cousins to play with. My kiddos play with a boy here who has many problems, they are really his only friends because his caregiver can't find anyone else who can deal with him. Maybe it's just a matter of time until Ryan finds someone like that where you are.