Archive for the ‘From the armchair’ category

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, et al, by John le Carré

20 March 2012
Categories: From the armchair

I have of late become totally obsessed with the spy novels of John le Carré.

I started with his classic The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, a paragon of the genre, then went straight into Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—wanting to finish it before checking out the latest film adaptation starring Gary Oldman. That book was so riveting that I don’t think I’ll be able to stop at least until I finish the entire “Karla Trilogy,” and as such I am now well into The Honourable Schoolboy and have Smiley’s People waiting in the wings.

The thing that so fascinates me about these books—aside from the mere fact of their high literary quality—is this: I think we’ve all gotten used to the notion that a “spy thriller” is what we get from James Bond or Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan. To wit, a contiguous sequence of action set-pieces; squealing tires and machine gun staccato and elaborate fisticuffs and a massive explosion at the end. But le Carré uses almost none of these tropes. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is bookended with brief moments of violence, but that’s it for “action” as we’ve come to expect.

His actors aren’t supermen, nor indestructible forces of nature; they’re real people, human, fallible, prone to doubts and fears and errors. The stakes are high, so they tread carefully—and when a colleague dies, they feel the loss deeply. They don’t steel their jaws and move on in vengeful stoicism; they cry.

What happens in these novels is, for the most part, people sitting in rooms talking. Or walking together and talking. Or just… thinking about things. Much of the action takes place off-stage, while we learn of it through someone (usually George Smiley) sitting at a desk and reading the pages of an agent dossier or case report.

And yet—it’s all so gripping. There’s tension on every page, and the build-up to the climax (albeit often a quiet, sitting-in-rooms-talking kind of climax) keeps the pages turning. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is almost a mystery novel, rather than a spy novel, as Smiley gathers the clues that allow him to expose the mole within the Circus. As a protagonist, he’s closer to Jane Marple than James Bond. When, toward the end of the novel, he carries a gun, it’s almost shocking. You don’t want him to have to be so uncouth as to have to arm himself, let alone squeeze the trigger. But you root for him all the way nevertheless.

On top of that, there’s the fact that the author himself worked for the British intelligence services for many years. The sense of reality contained in his tales is so deep that I have to remind myself that these books are not historical non-fiction; that George Smiley didn’t really exist; that MI6 was not infiltrated by Soviet moles in the 1970s and very nearly brought to its knees (at least, so far as we know).

And it’s clear to me that the real world of spycraft is much more like the world of le Carré and George Smiley, all research and information-gathering and thinking, than it is like James Bond or Jason Bourne. And that makes these novels all the more interesting and exciting.

The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller

4 November 2011
Categories: From the armchair

My experience with The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis is much like that of Laura Miller, which she describes in The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia: love, then betrayal, followed years later by warm reconciliation.

I was brought up in a secular household. We almost never went to church, except on rare occasions such as Christmas Eve services with Grandma (who, I suspect, liked church more for its social aspects than its religious ones), and the first communions of my cousins, who were raised Catholic. As a kid with limited exposure to it, religion was always something alien and perplexing to me.

Nevertheless, the Chronicles were some of my favourite books in my youth. At age eight I was given a box set of paperbacks (the 1970 Collier/Macmilllan printing) and devoured them repeatedly. Even in my earliest readings I was able to spot many of the more obvious allusions, like the Crucifixion and Resurrection in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the Creation in The Magician’s Nephew, and the Day of Judgment in The Last Battle. I saw these similarities and shrugged them off; if Lewis had borrowed some themes from the Bible and Christianity, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the books (although the conclusion of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with the lamb that turns out to be Aslan, always seemed anti-climactic after the rollicking adventure that preceded it).

I outgrew the books and moved on to other reading, keeping Narnia as a fondly remembered piece of my childhood. Meanwhile, by the time I reached my teenage years, I was an avowed atheist. Partly this was a typical teenager’s know-it-all attitude: “you can’t prove nothin’ to me.” Partly it was a form of quiet rebellion against what I saw as grating and superfluous aspects of Scouting, with its Oath (“…to do my duty to God and my country…”) and Law (“a scout is… reverent”). Who needs God when you’re learning to tie a clove hitch, or finding your way to the next campsite using only a map and a compass? Intellect alone will get the job done.

Then, in my early twenties, when I was still profoundly atheistic and a stubborn know-it-all, I ran across a slim paperback in a used bookstore: Narnia Revealed by Paul A. Karkainen. It’s not a particularly good book—yet another exegesis among many, detailing every little bit of Christian symbolism and metaphor in a dry litany—but its hype-y jacket copy caught my eye: the real meaning behind the Narnia books! I skimmed it and the dawning awareness was a dope-slap to my forebrain: Clive Staples Lewis wasn’t just borrowing themes here and there, the whole thing is Christianity’s tenets, retold! He was trying to convert me! That sneaky bastard!

The feeling I had was, simply, betrayal. I turned my back on Narnia and closed off a little bit of my magical youth.

It was many years later, having found some semblance of spirituality within myself (not through organized religion, mind you) and having become a (hopefully) far more open-minded agnostic, that I returned to the Narnia books and was pleased to find that, despite their trappings, they remain quite excellent children’s stories. That magic, regardless of its putative intent, had not been lost.

Which is why Miller’s book is such a breath of fresh air: it’s a departure from most critical analyses of the Chronicles, and shares a new appreciation for the books from a secular perspective. Instead of mere exegesis, she discusses the Chronicles for their literary qualities, only delving into their Christian aspects where needed to illustrate some of Lewis’s intentions—as a writer, rather than an evangelist. As a result, The Magician’s Book is an intriguing and thoughtful look at Narnia, its place in the pantheon of children’s literature, and most of all: an insightful look at not merely how we learn to read, but how we become readers.


Meanwhile, as a lengthy aside… Like Miller, I too have a strong preference for reading the books in their publication order. This is a deeply dividing argument, and much has been written on both sides (including this excellent run-down). The present executors of Lewis’s estate have come down on the side of strict story chronology, but there are definite artistic reasons for preferring publication order—the moments of initial discovery in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are ruined if the reader has already seen Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. And I tend to suspect, as Miller does, that Lewis was “just being kind to his young correspondent” when he wrote, “I think I agree with your [chronological] order for reading the books.”

I remember, as I read The Magician’s Nephew for the first time, being perplexed by its disconnect from the Narnia of the previous books (just as I had been with its predecessor The Horse and His Boy, which except for a pair of talking horses doesn’t seem very “Narnian” for most of its length). When the creation of Narnia is revealed, and it becomes apparent that The Magician’s Nephew is taking place long before the events of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, little eight-year-old me had a moment of smug satisfaction: Aha! those idiot bookmakers numbered the books out of order!

I was savvy enough, even at that young age, to look at the publication dates, to see that the books were indeed numbered in order of their publication. I begrudgingly acceded to the numbering—although I might have placed them in their box in chronological order for a while.

Yet one of the reasons the Chronicles are important to me, and my development as a reader, is that they were the very first to expose me to a simple but effective narrative device: the flashback. Being able to place that entire story outside of its “normal” order was an important step in my increasing understanding of How Stories Work. Sadly, the reprints have stolen that learning moment from subsequent generations of readers, and those readers will have to find it elsewhere.

Another thing that bugs me, beyond the more important ways in which the reordering ruins certain artistic aspects of the books, is how the reordering is handled in the preface to the reprints:

“Although The Magician’s Nephew was written several years after C. S. Lewis first began The Chronicles of Narnia, he wanted it to be read as the first book in the series. Harper Collins is happy to present these books in the order which Professor Lewis preferred.”

This flat statement of fact, without qualification or context, carries the same air of smug, we-know-better, self-satisfaction that I had at age eight—and, in my opinion, is just as juvenile.

Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture by Hugh Morrison

17 August 2011
Categories: From the armchair

coverLouis Sullivan has been my favourite architect for a long time. So long in fact that I have no clear recollection how I got so into him. Surely it was long before I attended a concert at the incredible Auditorium Building, long before I name-dropped him on Jeopardy!. Sometime in college or shortly thereafter I perused his written works, but never got very far into Kindergarten Chats or Autobiography of an Idea. Around that time I visited Buffalo, New York, and made a point of driving downtown to check out the Guaranty Building. But what in my past had given me the knowledge to do so… that’s uncertain.

Thus my recollection is, like so many Adler & Sullivan creations, lost to the sands of time. I wouldn’t be surprised if I first noticed Sullivan’s work in the astounding decorative façade of his Carson, Pirie & Scott Building during a shopping trip to State Street. And I remember later finding a copy of his rare folio A System of Architectural Ornament According With a Philosophy of Man’s Powers at the university library, which delighted me with its sketches and befuddled me with its prose.

At any rate, as I picked up this reprint of Hugh Morrison’s vital 1935 overview and critique of the life, designs, and philosophy of Louis H. Sullivan, in my mind was the notion: “I love Sullivan’s stuff. His details and ornament are so amazing and so different from anything anyone else was building, then or now.”

Little did I realize that his ornament was not his greatest contribution to architecture.

It’s hard to imagine now, but at the advent of the skyscraper the leading lights of American architecture were all wringing their hands at the problem that modern cities had thrust upon them: Real estate was expensive; city density was rising; the only remaining direction in which to build was up, up, up. Masonry buildings topped out at around twelve stories before they needed iron bracing to hold them up, but soon steel-frame construction came on the scene, and the skyscraper was born—in Chicago, as the Home Insurance Building.

Architects were at a loss: What to do with this new monster? It didn’t fit into any of their preconceived notions of building massing and proportion. To this end, early skyscrapers attempted to conceal their height by breaking the mass into a stack of shorter buildings. The Home Insurance Building is a good example: a two-story ground floor mass, topped by another two-story mass, then one of three stories, then two, then one—each section strongly delineated by its own cornice. (Another two stories were later added at the top, in much the same manner.) Meanwhile, its revolutionary structure is belied by the thick masonry of its exterior walls.

The leading journals were filled with articles that promoted this, shall we say, façade façade.

Louis Henry Sullivan, on the other hand, wrote lengthy arguments against that conceit. His many journal articles elucidate with deep profundity his entire philosophy of architecture; but really much of his florid prose could be distilled down, if a touch cheekily, to a single statement:

Tall buildings are tall. Deal with it.

That’s it in a nutshell. Never mind Sullivan’s amazing organic decoration, much of which was detailed by chief draughtsman George Elmslie anyway. So what if Frank Lloyd Wright owed a great deal of his innovative style to having worked under Sullivan (and later was a complete dick when given the opportunity to add to the historical record on his former mentor). Louis Sullivan’s great genius was in thumbing his nose at stultified convention.

His designs were the first to treat a tall building as a columnar form, with base, shaft, and capital—something now considered to be one of the core tenets of “Chicago School” architecture. The results were tall, soaring masses, and even with their elaborate festoons they exhibited a certain streamlined airiness that was decades ahead of its time.

That said, and this is something that this biography of Sullivan has been instrumental in revealing with its critical eye toward his designs, not everything Sullivan designed was a masterpiece. That’s not just including the ordinary, utilitarian edifices, the warehouses and factory buildings. It could also include some of what we now revere as his “lost treasures.”

For example, the destruction of the Wirt Dexter Building in 2006 remains a sad loss to Chicago’s architectural legacy. Yet if we assess the building strictly on its merits, what was lost?—a modest, relatively nondescript six-story commercial building. Although the Dexter’s Chicago Landmarks citation claimed its “unornamented design is a precursor to the firm’s work on the Auditorium Building,” both designs were derivative of their contemporary, H. H. Richardson. Its odd, perforated cast-iron beams on the rear elevation “anticipate building design of nearly seven decades later”—but were not influential on other structures either in its own era or after; they were isolated experiments that anticipated later design, but did not cause it. I believe the Dexter received its landmark designation solely due to the fame of its architects and the dearth of their surviving works in Chicago (a list that is now frightfully short).

Moreover, Sullivan’s extreme adherence to his own design principles may prove detrimental to his buildings’ long-term survival. For example his late works, the “jewel box” banks, are to some degree misguided treasures. Their external (and internal) exquisiteness aside, the interiors of these buildings have a certain over-planned rigidity to them. The jewel boxes are so specialized in their tasks, so precisely geared toward the machinery of their use, that I am forced to wonder: What happens when, say, a building-and-loan office is no longer needed? Or when the mechanics of banking change so dramatically (as they have, in many ways, over the past eight decades) that Sullivan’s highly functional interiors become obsolete? Can his buildings adapt to changing use? Or do they become, simply, pretty boxes with nothing to fit in them?

And his refusal to compromise with what Daniel Burnham deemed a “democratic ideal”—what Sullivan saw, justifiably perhaps, as pandering to the lowest common denominator—was at times so steadfast that his late-career demise might well have been inevitable.

When Dankmar Adler broke their partnership in 1895, only to come crawling back six months later, Sullivan’s refusal to renew their tie was an all-too-human response; he surely felt betrayed by Adler, who had only a few years left to live. Yet Adler’s personal style of dealing with clients was part of the old firm’s strength, and surely could have helped Sullivan to get back on his feet. Instead, new projects continued their post-Panic-of-1893 stagnation.

The Transportation Building for the 1893 World’s Fair—that grand, polychromatic departure from the forced classicism of the “White City”—was among the most eye-catching of any Fair buildings, and possibly (at least, according to Morrison) the most popular among visitors. Yet its outrageously over-the-top style, methinks a reactionary response to the Fair’s other architects, may well have been detrimental to modern architecture in the long run, for its sheer exuberance might have led fairgoers to think “that’s very lovely to look at, but I can’t imagine constructing something like that on Main Street in my town.” A simpler, cleaner, less adorned style, something Sullivan achieved in a few of his contracts within a few years of the Fair, might have been more approachable as a real-world possibility. Instead, the great takeaway of the Fair was a massive boom in old-fashioned, throwback—safe—styles: Roman and Greek columns and forms, temples of commerce and education and government, solid masses of masonry that sharply contradicted the lightweight steel structure they wrapped.

As Sullivan wrote near his death, the Fair set modern architecture back by fifty years—a declaration that loses some of its prophetic tone when we remember that it was written thirty years after the Fair. Still, when one considers such buildings as the Jewelers Building (1925–27 by Giaver & Dinkelberg) his statement rings true. Here’s a building, designed more than three decades after Adler & Sullivan’s game-changing Wainwright and Guaranty Buildings, still relying on Sullivan’s base/shaft/capital system—yet also stuck with classical applied decoration to the extent of five great gazebos, like Greek or Roman temples, plunked on its roofs.

The building owes a lot of its overall massing to Sullivan—but not nearly enough. And, perhaps, Sullivan himself is in some small way partly to blame for this. He was a genius who tried, sometimes desperately, but failed to bring his genius to the people.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that this book really led me to reassess my own biases, not only with regard to Sullivan but to architecture and historic preservation in general. I used to think that 99 times out of 100, demolition is bad, that buildings should be renovated and restored and reused, if at all possible. Now I’m not so stuck in that hard-core preservation mode.

Not every old building is worth saving, regardless of who designed it. And some great old buildings remain great, but lack vitality and purpose. In the end, if a building cannot be adapted to benefit the living, if it serves no other purpose than as a placeholder of architectural history, then inevitably it will probably succumb to economic realities. The Chicago Stock Exchange Building, for example, was destroyed by people who saw it as I have described his jewel box banks, inflexible to adaptation and therefore uneconomic; they were, in retrospect, quite wrong (it was readily adaptable, and was even profitable up to the day its tenants were evicted), and that building remains a tremendous loss to Chicago. But I have little doubt that if it were still standing today, forty years later, it would still be under the constant threat of demolition—for the right price.

Louis H. Sullivan was a great architect, of that there is no doubt. But he also had a tremendous inability to—well, either to go with the flow or to compromise his principles, depending on how charitably one views his steadfastness. I suppose the real tragedy is that we didn’t get enough out of him when he was alive, and we spent far too long under-appreciating what he wrought—to the extent that today we’re left with a mere handful of great works by the master, and a mixed bag of them at that.

A book in the hand…

20 April 2011
Categories: From the armchair

I will never own a Kindle.

Nor any of the other electronic readers on the market, of which the Kindle seems to be the most popular (and is definitely the best named) option. Even though it’s all too easy to use its name generically—like Kleenex or Band-aid—I’ll refrain and stick to “reader” for the remainder of this post.

Too many arguments against readers are aesthetic: they’re flat-out hard to read, or sunshine causes screen glare, or they lack the feel of a real book in your hands.

Whatever. Those arguments are all too easily dismissed as the carping of Luddites. “I cannot manoeuvre this horseless carriage with its newfangled round steering wheel. Give me the tiller of my flivver any day!”

I’m all for new gadgets, new ways of receiving information. I read enough on a computer screen, day in day out, that it’s much more habitual to me than, say, paging through a newspaper. And there is a lot of stuff out there that is out of print, and hard to find, but which has been digitized and placed online, and that’s a Very Good Thing. So there’s nothing inherently wrong with a reader, at least in principle, as a medium for the printed word.

But here’s why I will not purchase a reader.

A few weeks ago, I got onto an Apollo kick, spurred in part by my recent reading of Moondust by Andrew Smith. I wanted to re-watch the brilliant HBO series From the Earth to the Moon under the contrary-to-popular-opinion mindset, proposed by Smith, that President Kennedy’s famous challenge “killed ‘manned’ Deep-Space exploration, stone dead, for at least the next four decades and probably many more.” At the same time, I decided to re-read the primary source for the HBO series, Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon.

coverAs I pulled Chaikin’s book from my shelf, I noted my handwritten imprimatur on the flyleaf, which stated that I bought the book in December 1994. I’ve read this book all the way through a few times since then, and used its appendices as a reference many, many times more. I have certainly gotten my money’s worth (a $15.95 cover price) from this book.

Then I thought about that time span. In the sixteen-plus years since I bought that book, how many times have I replaced my desktop computer, my laptop, or their operating systems? A very rough estimate: 7. Technology changes, hardware obsolesces.

If I had a reader, and bought this (or any) book today… how easy would it be, sixteen years from now, to read that book again or even pick it up for a quick fact-check? Would my old reader still work? Would I still have it? Would I be able to load that old digital file into my current reader? How long would it take to find the file, much less upload it? By the time all that was done, would I still care about the fact I was attempting to check, or would I have already resorted to Googling the darn thing and hoping to find an accurate answer elsewhere?

Or—might I have to buy the book all over again?

Instead, I walk into the room that doubles as my home office and library, pull the book off the shelf—it’s right there, easily found under the “C”s—and get the answer I need following a quick riffle through the pages. No waiting for an upload to finish, nor any need to reboot.

In short, it’s all about time—both mine, and the book’s. I’ve spent enough time in my life waiting for computers to do what I’ve asked them to do, that I’m no longer willing to wait for them; besides, a real book never needs a reboot. And while with just a modicum of care a real book will last well beyond my lifetime, I’m skeptical that an e-book will last even long enough for me to get around to reading it a second time.

But yes, sure, I have less tangible reasons as well for liking this book in its old-fashioned, physical form—and moreover, personal ones.

On a wintry day in December 1994, I’m reading this book for the first time, sitting in the fondly remembered Bagel–Fragel deli. In walks one of my bosses, Professor Brian Silver, chair of the political science department. He says hi, and asks what I’m reading. I show him the cover.

He snatches the book out of my hands and starts flipping quickly through the pages. What’s he up to? I wonder. He’s paging through too quickly to read anything, he’s not trying to get the gist of the book. It’s almost like he’s seen it before…

He gets to one of the photo pages between pages 430 and 431, stabs his finger at the top photo, and hands the open book back to me. “That’s my uncle,” he says, with a hint of pride.

I look at the photo, read its caption: Standing on a mountaintop in Colorado amid the primary and backup crews of Apollo 15 is Professor Lee Silver, Cal Tech geologist extraordinaire, the man most responsible for turning a bunch of type-A fighter jocks into able field geologists. (He was portrayed with delightful, eccentric earnestness by David Clennon in From the Earth to the Moon, one of the standout roles in the series.) His nephew’s familial pride is well-earned.

I remember that moment so distinctly because it was the first time in my life that I’d had an inkling of my own connection, albeit tertiary, to some of my biggest heroes—the men who walked on the moon. All at once they were real people, not just faceless spacesuited gnomes humping around a lumpy grey lunar landscape in old NASA footage, nor smiling, aviator-glasses-wearing, crew-cut-sporting military men in grainy photo reprints in a book. And I knew someone who knew someone who knew them.

And that moment, that spark of recognition that everyone in the world is interconnected in some way, is tied to this book, this particular copy of this book, the one I hold in my hands now.

Could an electronic reader ever be able to duplicate that?

Brainiac by Ken Jennings

7 April 2011
Categories: From the armchair

Here’s a bit of trivia you might not know: Ken Jennings is a very funny guy.

Like many Jeopardy! viewers, I watched Jennings’ 75-game marathon in 2004 with decidedly undecided feelings. I never really rooted for him, nor against him. To be frank, I usually don’t even care about the contestants at all. As I have for years, even long before my own appearance on the show when I routinely taped (yes, taped, on a VCR) the episodes, I time-shift my viewing not only to skip the commercials, but also to bypass the contestant introductions and chats. This enables me to view a full three episodes in an hour, and makes the show all about the trivia, and not the trappings.

Besides, the contestants are really just a never-ending series of interchangeable trivia geeks. Unless one stands out as particularly charismatic or attractive—or on the rare occasion I recognize a face, such as that of Matt Ottinger, host of WKAR-TV’s QuizBusters and one of many victims of the Ken Jennings buzz saw (game 14)—they’re all the same. Myself included.

And Ken was certainly no exception. That’s not meant as a slam on him, it’s just stating a fact that Jeopardy! is hardly an ideal venue for anyone’s personality to shine. He was just an ordinary, clean-cut, “Opie-looking guy from Utah” (his words, not mine), and the fact that he kept showing up behind Podium #1 was, from a purist’s point-of-view, a distraction from The Game. And he was so damn good at it, and yet so overtly milquetoast, that it seemed the only way to make him interesting was to believe he was some sort of replicant, or android. So while it was fun to see his streak continue on the basis of witnessing quiz-show history, both of those facts—his persona and his prowess—made it awfully hard to root for him.

With that bias firmly in place, imagine my surprise when Ken showed up last month on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” interview, under the pseudonym “Watson’s Bitch”—a self-deprecating reference to his recent on-air drubbing at the “hands” of a specialized IBM supercomputer—responding off-the-cuff to dozens of questions, big and small, with witty jibes and candid good humour. Some of his replies were snarfing-coffee-out-the-nose funny. And somewhere in there he mentioned his blog, which I found contains much more of the same.

And, shockingly, he’s got a taste for the occasional dirty joke. I suppose we should have figured that out from game 53, given his response to the clue “This term for a long-handled gardening tool can also mean an immoral pleasure seeker”—although maybe that particular example is more of a pun. But if your idea of “what Mormons are like” comes from a certain HBO series, you might be surprised by his reprinting of a typically smutty old Spy List on his blog, or this response in his Reddit AMA:

TheCrimsonKing: You’re a little too funny, did you hire writers with your winnings?

WatsonsBitch: Bruce Vilanch is hiding under my desk right now. Unfortunately he’s not writing jokes for me, if you know what I mean.

Or this exchange with a friend while they toured Stevens Point, Wisconsin, during that city’s annual three-day trivia event:

Earl and I decide to spend the day visiting as many trivia players as possible, and so we pore over a list of all 435 registered teams. “Shall we just go by team name?” asks Earl. “I want to visit K-Y Jelly Doughnuts and Drain Bamage.”

“Some of these names are pretty dirty,” I notice. “Let’s just visit every team where the name is an oral sex reference.”

“I don’t think we have that kind of time.”

Ken Jennings’ 2006 book, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, is a must-read for any trivia buff, dilettante, or even neophyte. The narrative is excellent; through the course of the book Ken takes us through his complete Jeopardy! experience, from audition to post-defeat interviews. Some of the behind-the-scenes action, while never dishing any dirt or revealing Sony’s top secrets, does give prospective contestants a good general idea of what to expect with the show.

Meanwhile, Ken takes us on a journey through trivia. He presents us with a thorough rundown of trivia’s history from (not-so) ancient times. The scandals of the 1950s, and the birth of College Quiz Bowl in the 1960s. The amazing surge of trivia popularity in the 1980s, fueled by the blockbuster sales of Trivial Pursuit. The bar-trivia NTN network, a.k.a. Buzztime, and the annual temporary insanity of Stevens Point (which, by the way, begins tomorrow evening). And much more.

It’s a terrific book for trivia junkies, not least because he slips trivia questions into each chapter (usually ten, although the chapter about the general types of trivia questions and how to compose them triples that total). Just like a good game of trivia, there are plenty of “aha!” and “I didn’t know that!” moments. Without overreaching, he explains how trivia is a pervasive and positive force in modern life, its most obvious benefit being the way in which it brings people together.

On his website, Ken Jennings is hawking copies of Brainiac, which he offers to autograph and personalize, and still sell at a steep discount off the cover price. Although this has led to a spate of “high maintenance” signing requests, I suspect it’s a good ploy to unload a case (or three) of books that he likely got for free from the publisher and might otherwise sit in his garage forever.

I ordered a copy for myself, making a (low-maintenance, I hope) request for him to “feel free to make any witty-if-disparaging remark you like about my one-day appearance on Jeopardy!” Ken’s response was absolutely typical Ken Jennings—humourous, upbeat, and not the least bit mean-spirited: