After winning 74 straight on Jeopardy! and taking home his two-and-a-half million, Ken Jennings could have easily dashed off a quickie memoir, while the story was still hot, and collected some hefty earnings all over again. Instead, he went deep not just into his memory, but into trivia's own history, and then, journalistically, into trivia's living present. He alternates between the three strands to weave the collective story of how trivia evolved, as both pastime and entertainment; how the questions get written and the games made and the shows produced; and, of course, how he, Ken Jennings, made off with his big score.
The book has a thesis, and the thesis is that trivia knowledge is not necessarily trivial. The thesis is that no one who acquires so much conventionally useless knowledge does so because of a lack of curiosity about the world and what's in it, but because of curiosity's abundance.
That's why trivia best rewards those whose curiosity goes broad rather than deep. It rewards the generalist over the specialist. To excel at specialty trivia requires of an esoteric, particle-level understanding of the subject at hand that makes a game more challenging than enjoyable. I learned this over the last two years as I struggled to keep myself and others engaged by Trivial Pursuit questions of absurd difficulty in both the Beatles and SNL editions (the game-pieces for the latter of which are pictured below). It's the great organizing purpose of Jennings' book to let us know that trivia, if it's to be anything other than an anemic little parlor trick, has to be broad and hungry and cosmopolitan. There are two ways we can go with this:
Maybe the trivialization of America will produce a rising generation of bright, curious, culturally literate citizens, conversant in every subject of learning under the sun, and trivia will thereby save the world. Or maybe it will just produce more couch potatoes full of ironic hipster regard for crappy old TV, and obsessed with niggling sports statistics and the detail-filled "bonus features" on their DVDs. Time will tell. But in either case, trivia is here to stay.