In defence of trivia

I have just finished reading The Importance of Being Trivial by Mark Mason. This delightful book, which deals with the author’s quest to find the perfect piece of trivia, has interviews with aficionados, and scientists as the author seeks to explain the appeal of trivia and what it tells us about being human. The book is peppered with titbits and here is a selection of my favourites:

  • Pete Conrad was the first man to fall over on the moon.
  • George Foreman’s sons are all called George.
  • Gordon Brown, who is blind in one eye, decreed that the font for Number Ten emails change from Times New Roman 12 to Arial when he became PM
  • Oasis’s Liam Gallagher has an IQ of over 160.
  • The only female in Lawrence is Arabia is Gladys the camel.
  • The first government ban on smoking was instituted by the Nazis.
  • Jack the Ripper was left-handed.
  • In 1977, when Elvis Presley died, there were 170 Elvis impersonators in the world. By the turn of the millennium that had grown to 85,000. At that rate of growth, by 2019 one third of the world’s population will be Elvis impersonators.
  • The leg in the famous poster for The Graduate was not Anne Bancroft’s it belonged to Linda Gray, who would go on to play Sue Ellen in the hit TV series Dallas.

I want to have a look at what trivia is. The word comes from the Latin for three ways. It referred to the arte triviale the trivium the three liberal arts (the education appropriate for a free man) taught at university namely grammar, rhetoric and logic. The other four liberal arts were the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, which were considered more intellectually demanding and thus trivia came to mean “of interest only to an undergraduate”. Its modern incarnation is, rather surprisingly for me, is from the USA; two Columbia University students, Ed Goodgold and Dan Carlinsky, ran quizzes at  their university with questions about culturally significant but ultimately useless information, which they called trivia contests.

There is no doubt that trivia has its detractors. It is considered shallow and its practitioners are considered anal In English we have that rather despective word, coined by Norman Mailer, factoid, facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper. I remember a teacher at school calling participants on the quiz programme Mastermind as human dustbins. It does seem to be a particularly masculine activity drawing on the male brain that is dedicated to systemising.

One thing that is clear is the incomplete nature of knowledge. There are so many things we think we know but that turn out to have no basis in truth. Facts once they get out seem to have a life of their own. Sometimes we do it ourselves when we fill in the gaps in our memory by unconsciously inventing something. The programme QI has a section called General Ignorance where they debunk myths that have gained acceptance: Marco Polo was in fact Croatian and his name means Mark Chicken. Nelson’s last words were not “Kiss me, Hardy” or “Kismet, Hardy” but “Drink, drink. Fan, fan Rub, rub.” The steam engine was actually invented in ancient Greece. I guess that in the Internet age we have learnt that the truth is complicated.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you will know that I don’t agree with the critics of trivia. If you look on the right hand side I have a category dedicated to it. I am an intellectual dilettante a knowledge junkie. I love finding out about theories and ideas but I do enjoy that special feeling when I discover a magical piece of trivia. I do agree that facts without theory is trivia and theory without facts is bullshit. But trivia is a way of making knowledge attractive and is just great fun. And that’s more than enough for me.

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