Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

Lost Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

There was a time when you would be hard pushed to find a science fiction novel with a female main character. As I noted when re-reading Asimov's Foundation, in 189 pages, women appear on just five pages - and they're very much supporting cast. But the majority of new SF novels I've read this year have had female main characters, including The Real Town Murders, Austral and Andy Weir's upcoming Artemis.

That's certainly the case in Karl Drinkwater's engaging Lost Solace. It's really a two hander between military renegade Opal and her ship's AI, Clarissa. There are a few male characters, but they are either non-speaking troops she battles or a major with whom she has a couple of short video conversations. That summary gives an unfair military flavour to the whole thing - in practice, the majority of the action, which is practically non-stop throughout the book, involves Opal trying to survive as she explores a mysterious, apparently abandoned liner in a de…