December 20, 2007

Happy Birthday To Me

Thanks for all the birthday well wishes. As usual I spent almost the entire day in transit — left the house in Boston at 5am, arrived at destination in London at 10:30pm. I then proceeded more or less immediately to the pub to ensure that at least one birthday drink (other than the cup of British Airways coffee) would be forthcoming. Now, twelve hours later, I'm back at Heathrow to fly to Edinburgh.

For the plane I bought myself a copy of Brainiac, by Jeopardy! champ and record-breaker Ken Jennings. To my surprise and delight, it was not a quick 'n' dirty fifteen-minutes-of-fame cash-in, but rather a wry and gentle look at the history of trivia in the United States, coupled with profiles of a number of its quirkier devotees (kind of like Wordplay, but in book form). Along the way, Jennings interweaves the story of his own obsession with trivia, from his quasi-OCD childhood devotion to comics and quiz shows, all the way up to his 75-show run on Jeopardy! (which includes a number of Alex Trebek zingers that are far superior to anything SNL ever managed). The whole thing is written with deft wit, humility and even, occasionally, some poesy. Perhaps the best part, though, is that each chapter has built-in, footnoted trivia questions, so you can play along as you read.

It's a particularly interesting comparison for me, because I also just finished reading The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (famously adapted for the movie Adaptation). Orlean makes a living from her writing (The Orchid Thief is based on a piece she did for The New Yorker), whereas Jennings is a "mere" software engineer — but although both books have a pretty similar theme and structure — personal story/reflection interwoven with in-depth history of a relatively obscure field and its fanatics — Orlean's feels stilted and overwritten where Jennings' is more varied and nimble. Not that Orlean is a bad writer or Jennings a great one (all his physical descriptions of people involve precisely two facial features, and one is almost always the eyebrows), but Jennings nails the nonfiction book format and leaves Orlean kind of floundering in her own bloated prose. (And yet, while Orlean's book is adorned with rave reviews from a who's who of highbrow book criticism, the best Jennings' manages is The Rocky Mountain News — which seems a bit ridiculous.)

Anyway, highly recommended.

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