Top Five Brainy-But-Fun Summer Reads
Good Stories Combined with Fascinating Info
I love reading authors who can tell a good story, but I also like to come away with a little knowledge in exchange for the hours I spent reading their books.
Fortunately, with these lively titles (let's not call them merely nonfiction), I don't have to choose between interesting reading and learning a few things.
In these books you'll find meaty and fun info about trivia championships, what it takes to be an astronaut what it's like to compete in a memory contest, and a tribute to Star Trek in all its incarnations.
Brainiac by Ken Jennings
Author Ken Jennings, the trivia-obsessed nerd who shot to fame by winning for six months straight on the Jeopardy!, has to walk a fine line here in his memoir between an "I'm smarter than you could ever be" persona and an "aw, gosh" fake humility which readers would immediately see through.
He does it well, being appropriately self-deprecating, but also smart enough that it's a pleasure to read his insights and follow his train of thought. He peppers his narrative with some of the best trivia questions and includes the answers at the end of each chapter.
Jennings recounts his childhood dismay on learning that the big new surprise his parents were unveiling was a trip to Disneyland. He had been hoping for his own Boggle game set.
He explores the odd position of being nationally famous. On the plus side, he gets a Mad Magazine "fold-in." On the minus side, the New York Times calls him "the most annoying man in game show history." (Worse than Charles Nelson Reilly? he wonders.)
Part bio, part history of trivia, part trivia quiz, his history of trivia is succinct, thorough, interesting, and entertaining enough to inspire the factoid-lovers among us to search out some of these competitions
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foers
Foers, a young journalist, covered the US Memory Championship and started wondering about the competitors. They could memorize long lists of random numbers, remember the order of a deck of cards, and recite poems after studying them for only a few minutes. Were they savants with photographic memories?
No , it turns out, they were mental athletes who used centuries-old memory techniques to store their memories and recall them when needed. They told him it was a skill that anyone could learn if they practiced the right techniques.
Foers took up the challenge, and trained for a year to compete in the next US championships, a quest which provides the framework for this book and ends in a rather gripping account of his experiences at the competition.
Along the way, he introduces us to some fascinating folks.
While reading this book, I learned that I'm likely to forget most of it, have only read it once. I never read a book twice, but I think I’ll have to make an exception for this one. I don't want to forget any of it.
Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
What is the “right stuff” for an astronaut? Steely nerves? Maverick impulses? Physical prowess?
No, none of that. In Mary Roach’s intriguing exploration of all things NASA, she finds that you need someone rather small and compact, "accustomed to small spaces and limited privacy." Additionally, potential astronauts need to be quite polite and able to hold their emotions in check. No John Waynes or Bruce Willises welcome here.
Roach digs in and finds the oddities in all sorts of topics from "The alarming prospect of life without gravity" to space hygiene. She covers all the topics people are interested in from how they...um...eliminate to what happens if they...um...toss their cookies.
A quick glance at the chapter subheadings let you know that you're not in for a conventional book about space travel: Can space blow your mind?—What if you never get out of bed?—Mating without gravity—Bailing out at 10,000 miles per hour—When veterinarians make dinner—Is Mars worth it?
This behind-the-scenes look at the practicalities of space travel will probably make you happy you’re not planning a trip to the outer reaches any time soon.
Star Trek Vault
It can’t be a truly brainy list without a bit of Star Trek tucked in.
I am a casual Star Trek fan. I don't know how to carry on a conversation in Klingon, and I can't translate anything into Star Dates. But I do have an affection for the TV series and the movies. And I love this coffee-table book. It has just the right amount of interesting factoids, perceptive analysis, and cool visuals to keep me fascinated.
How do you know if this book is right for you? If you **didn't** know any of the following, then you'll find plenty more interesting material:
– Creator Gene Roddenberry resigned from the LAPD in order to follow his dream of working in television.
– The first Star Trek comics put the characters in knit caps and gave them backpacks. The artists in Italy who made the comic book had never seen the show.
– In the animated series, the Klingons had hot pink uniforms. The director was colorblind, and to him the uniforms looked gray. Tribbles were also pink in the animated series
– A Klingon Christmas Carol, performed entirely in the Klingon language, has been produced at St. Paul in Chicago
– James Doohan, the actor who plays Scotty, invented the first lines of Klingon dialogue which were heard in the first movie Star Trek: the Motion Picture
– During the run of Star Trek: the Next Generation, one could buy talking lunch box shaped like Worf’s head
This book provides lots of large full-color photographs as well as entertaining little bits of swag: reproductions of coloring books, trading cards, pennants, scripts, comic book pages, stickers, and all manner of interesting little tidbits.
But what really sets it apart is that author Tipton is such a good writer. He deftly and concisely analyzes trends in plot lines and characters, and describes the merchandise and collectibles which sprang from each of the iterations.
He covers all the television series: The Original Series, the Animated Series, the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. He also covers all the movies, save for one, the new Star Trek released in 2009.
All in all, this book provides a fascinating read and plenty of eye candy.
Maphead by Ken Jenning
It's not surprising that trivia legend and Jeopardy! superstar Ken Jennings is a self-described maphead who slept with a world atlas by his pillow every night when he was a kid. It's also not surprising that he wanted to write a book about it.
What is surprising is that he is such an entertaining writer that he makes the subject come alive, even for me. (I may be the only fan of Lord of the Rings who paged right by the maps. Yeah, I was kind of lost a few times in the story, but I always figured they could get to Mordor without my help.)
My copy of Maphead is studded with little Post-it flags marking little factoids I found particularly interesting:
*This one marks a discussion about how the human brain can't manage diagonal relationships
*That one marks a paragraph about the homing abilities of Tunisian desert ants
*This one marks the part where he describes the heart-breaking disregard people have for one of the best map libraries in the world (hint, Americans it's in your own country).
Fascinating and entertaining from end-to-end, this book has inspired me to stop every now and then and have a good look at a map.