Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Importance of Being Trivial – Mark Mason ****

Have you ever wondered what it is about trivia that is so appealing? Ever since the success of Schott’s Miscellany, we have been inundated with books of fascinating factoids. Even science has not been spared, thanks to the huge success of the like of Why Don’t Penguin’s Feet Freeze? Author Mark Mason is someone who is fascinated by trivia. But for him it’s not enough to know that you can hear Big Ben chime on the radio slightly ahead of the real thing, because the signal is being transmitted (live) at the speed of light, while you only hear it coming down from the tower at the speed of sound – he has to take a radio to the foot of the Westminster clock tower to try it out.
In this book, Mason attempts to uncover just why a good factoid grabs the attention – what makes trivia anything but trivial. We see trivia cropping up in quizzes, in pub conversations, in the shows of stand up comics – in a series of interviews with academics and professional trivia users, Mason gradually builds up a picture of what makes one factoid fascinating while another is everyday and explores the reason why some kinds of brain – those with more ‘male brains’ in Simon Baron-Cohen’s terminology (not all men, though the majority are) – are particularly suited to the joy of trivia.
The only tiny reasons this book doesn’t get five stars are that there’s probably a bit too much anecdote (essential for trivia) and not enough science for this site, and also because I found the section about QI unnecessary. It’s probably just me, but I find the whole QI phenomenon smug and nausea-inducing. (And they get things wrong more often than I’d expect – I’ve twice heard them say, for instance, that Galileo invented the telescope.)
I think there’s still more subtlety in there than Mason has uncovered. For example, I love trivia, the sense of wonder and the joy of sharing it (sometimes to the irritation of others) – but I have no interest in sport, and can’t remember numbers or dates. I love trivia, but like jokes I rarely remember any of it more than a few minutes. This type of trivia enthusiast, I’d suggest, is just as common if not more so than those who can remember all the obscure stuff.
However, that’s a very small negative -the book is charming, very well written and works like the best of such titles, taking us on a personal excursion around the world of non-trivial trivia. This is no simple collection of facts, although you will be amazed by the stuff you find out – it’s is much more than that, it’s an explanation of a fundamental human behaviour. Recommended.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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