(Roughly) Daily

“Trivia is a fact without a home”*…

What makes for a good trivia question? There are some common-sense requirements. It should be clearly written, accurate, and gettable for at least some people. (Acceptable degrees of difficulty vary.) It must be properly “pinned” to its answer, meaning that there are no correct responses other than those the questioner is seeking. (This can be trickier than you might think.) In the opinion of Shayne Bushfield, the creator and sole full-time employee of LearnedLeague, an online trivia community that he has run since 1997, people should recognize the answer to the question as something worth knowing, as having a degree of importance. “Trivia is not the right word for it,” he told me recently. “Because trivia technically means trivial, or not worth knowing, and it’s the opposite.”

The idea that the answers to trivia questions are worth knowing is a matter of some debate, and has been more or less since trivia itself was born. The pop-culture pastime of quizzing one another on a variety of subjects as a kind of game is fundamentally a phenomenon of the past hundred years or so: its first appearance as a fad seems to date to 1927, when “Ask Me Another! The Question Book” was published. As the “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings notes in his book “Brainiac,” “Ask Me Another” was written by “two out-of-work Amherst alumni” living in Manhattan, who “were shocked to find that, despite their fancy new diplomas and broad liberal educations, the job world wasn’t beating a path to their door.” Their book was a hit, and newspapers began running quiz columns, a follow-up of sorts to the national crossword craze of a couple of years before. Quiz shows came to radio and television about a decade later. But none of these games were called trivia until a pair of Columbia undergraduates, in the mid-sixties, shared their version of the game, first in the school’s Daily Spectator and later in their own popular quiz book, which really did prize the trivial: the name of the Lone Ranger’s nephew, the name of the snake that appeared in “We’re No Angels,” and so on. This version of trivia was all about the stuff one had read, listened to, or watched as a kid, and its appeal, according to one of the Columbia pair, was concentrated among “young adults who on the one hand realize they have misspent their youth and yet, on the other hand, do not want to let go of it.” The purpose of playing, he explained, was experiencing the feeling produced when an answer finally came to you, “an effect similar to the one that might be induced by a pacifier.”

Presumably, it has always been satisfying to know things, but the particular pleasure of trivia seems to depend on two relatively recent developments: the constant relaying of new information (i.e., mass media) and the mass production of people who learn a lot of things they don’t really need to know. (College attendance began steadily rising in the nineteen-twenties, before booming after the Second World War.) It is sometimes asked whether the popularity of trivia will diminish in the age of Google and Siri, but those earlier developments have only accelerated, and trivia seems, if anything, more popular than ever. In contrast to the mindless ease of looking up the answer to a question online, there’s a gratifying friction in pulling a nearly forgotten fact from your own very analog brain…

The quietly oppositional delight of knowing things you don’t need to know: “The Pleasures of LearnedLeague and the Spirit of Trivia.”

Don Rittner


As we revel in the rarefied, we might celebrate the answer to a tough trivia question: today is the birthday of John McClane, the protagonist of the Die Hard films; he was “born” on this date in 1955.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 23, 2021 at 1:01 am

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