Game show hero Ken Jennings has a cartography obsession and a new book to prove it. Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks is out this month, and we decided to mark the occasion by asking Ken which books made him so stinking smart in the first place.
“You must read a lot of books, huh?” I get asked on a regular basis. I assume this is a result of my six-month, patience-of-Alex-Trebek-testing streak on the quiz show “Jeopardy!” back in 2004, and not just a natural consequence of my awkward, twitchy demeanor and sallow complexion. I always say that a sufficiently curious person can learn everywhere, not just from books, so it’s not necessarily accurate to picture me reading stacks of encyclopedia volumes on the toilet. (It’s also not necessarily very appealing.) But I do read a lot. Here are five books that I guarantee* will win you 74 consecutive games on the quiz show of your choice. (*Not a guarantee.)
“The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know” by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Joseph F. Kett and James Trefil.
I was at the National Spelling Bee earlier this year, and one speller’s mom wanted to know, in case her little darling ever made it on “Jeopardy!,” what book all the answers came from. There isn’t any such book, but if I had to choose one study guide, it would be this impressive book divides the canon of Western knowledge into 23 sections, from “The Bible” to “Technology,” and breaks down each field into hundreds of handy alphabetical entries, summarizing all the stuff you learned in high school and then forgot the day after the test. It’s also an excellent reference if you are some type of spy for a foreign power trying to pass yourself off as an American suburbanite.
“The Annotated Alice” by Martin Gardner
The patron saints of the informationally omnivorous are polymaths like Martin Gardner, the late mathematician and Scientific American columnist. Gardner wrote prolifically on everything from epistemology to stage magic, but his masterpiece is probably “The Annotated Alice,” in which he effortlessly guides the reader through the tricky math, logic and wordplay underlying Lewis Carroll’s two “Alice” novels. If you ever wanted 23 possible answers to the Mad Hatter’s famous riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” then this is the book for you. If not, off with your head!
“National Geographic Atlas of the World” Ninth Edition
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved maps and atlases with the kind of zeal and purity you normally only see in cult members or soccer fans. A big flagship atlas like this one is probably the last kind of reference work that still beats its Internet equivalent hands-down: though I love Google Maps, there’s nothing like sitting down in front of an oversized double-page spread and absorbing gajillions of little cartographic details – a denser treasure trove of information than any encyclopedia or almanac.
“Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things” by Charles Panati
This is the second of seven outrageously entertaining trivia collections cooked up by Panati, a former Newsweek science editor (or, if you prefer the more entertaining bits of his resume, a former Miss America escort and buddy to Israeli psychic Uri Geller). His books detail the secret origins of all manner of human detritus, from ballpoint pens to kabuki theater to the Slinky. Thanks to Panati, I know now that the ancient Egyptians invented deodorant by putting cinnamon under their arms, which has enriched my life (if not my personal hygiene) immeasurably.
“The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Okay, this isn’t a trivia book. But there’s more to being a know-it-all than just state birds and world capitals. Shouldn’t you also work on knowing the stuff that gives life real meaning? Trust me, Dostoyevsky’s prose will do more for your soul than knowing who invented the Slinky. What if you finally get on “Jeopardy!” and the categories all turn out to be things like “Faith, Doubt and Free Will” or “The Redemptive Power of Human Love?” This is the kind of knowledge that sets us human game show contestants apart from our nonhuman competition – you know, the evil IBM supercomputer at the next podium.