The next gentleman in line at the book signing looks, to be diplomatic, like a certain kind of hardcore trivia buff. He’s got a blonde attempted beard, rosy cheeks, a beer belly, and suspenders over the ad-slogan T-shirt he’s a bit too old for. “Can you just write ‘ORD means Orchard’?” he asks, handing over his copy of Brainiac with a bit of a smirk.
Hey, if they buy a book, I’ll write whatever they want. “‘ORD means Orchard’? Sure, okay. What does that mean?”
“Oh, right. The old name for O’Hare. Yeah, that’s actually in the book.”
Bigger smirk now. “I know. But you got it wrong. ORD doesn’t stand for ‘O’Hare.’ It means ‘Orchard.’”
So apparently he’d mis-parsed a sentence in Chapter 3 of Brainiac, a sentence about how Chicago’s airport got its name and abbreviation. (To be fair, I realized when I re-read the sentence that it was ambiguous: “I pass a plaque honoring Edward ‘Butch’ O’Hare, the navy pilot for whom Orchard Field was renamed in 1949 (hence O’Hare’s cryptic three-letter code, ORD).” The antecedent of the “hence” is meant to be “Orchard,” not “O’Hare,” which, I admit, could be clearer.)
But the interesting part of the story for me wasn’t that this guy mistakenly thought he’d found a boo-boo. It’s that his “catch” was such a badge of pride to him that he wanted me–in place of all the other thousands of nice things I could have written–to personally commemorate his victory above my signature. Was I supposed to be humiliated by having to so recognize his imagined airport-trivia superiority? I think I probably was.
I mention this not to single out Mr. ORD-Means-Orchard (I honestly don’t even remember what city this was in, and I’m sure he’s a nice guy despite the weird inscription his copy of Brainiac now bears) but because he’s a great example of what I found, in writing Brainiac, that I dislike most, in general, about trivia-folk. There’s so much to like about trivia people–the superhumanly broad range of interests, the intellectual curiosity, the nostalgia, the genuine joy in discovering knowledge–but I think many non-initiates get scared away from the game because those good qualities can be dwarfed by something much less attractive: the need to be right–and publicly so–when others are wrong.
I think most people’s minds are pretty conciliatory in nature. We hear or read something presented as fact, and we agree with it, or at least look for a light in which we can maybe partway agree with it. But writing trivia convinced me very quickly that many people have the opposite impulse: they want there to be mistakes. Given the choice, they will choose to read something in the least charitable way possible, in order to create an error they can trumpet. Like the man who wrote me to complain that Lou Gehrig wasn’t the “Columbia alum” I describe him as in Brainiac–he only attended Columbia for two years and never graduated! Or the message board poster yesterday who offered a big visceral “Ugh!” at the jacket copy calling koalas “koala bears.” “Please please please contact your editor,” the poster begs, adding that, as a Random House employee, s/he can get this corrected him/herself if I’m not man enough.
Thirty seconds at a dictionary would have shown Doubter A that an alumnus is “a person who has attended or has graduated from a particular school” and informed Doubter B that the “koala” definition ends, “Also called koala bears.” But no, the hair must be split in the least charitable direction possible. Brainiac has plenty of genuine errors–and I’m grateful to have them pointed out–without inventing fake ones.
The urge to pick nits: where does it come from? I argue in Brainiac that it’s an excuse to show off, to use knowledge as a pissing contest, a way to divide people instead of connecting them. But maybe I should follow my own advice and read this tendency more charitably. Maybe the quibblers do sincerely, selflessly want to share with others the pure joy of knowledge, their knowledge of koala taxonomy and Lou Gehrig’s college transcript. If so, please, I beg you people: soft-pedal your accusations and leash your pet peeves. If you must be a know-it-all, at least have the decency to be a little self-aware and apologetic about it. Smile ruefully when forced to explain that someone has confused Equatorial Guinea with Guinea-Bissau. Let the novices know that you can love trivia without being completely insufferable.
Sometimes, of course, the motivation for trivia-kibitzing isn’t arrogance or love of knowledge: it’s the competitive drive to win. I got this impression from a Seattle man who PM’d me last month to sympathize with me about the question that knocked me off of 1 vs. 100, about whether the number 1 on a roulette wheel was red or black. He too had been in the Mob on that show and been eliminated by that question. He wrote, “The question confused me because…EVERY SINGLE “NUMBER” ON A ROULETTE WHEEL IS WHITE!” (See illustration above.)
Yes, he assured me, he was totally serious. He thought we should inform the show of their error and publicly petition them for a second chance!
You go get ‘em, tiger.