Saturday, November 18, 2006

Review: Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris

Grade: B+

It's impossible to pan this one. Whatever Prisoner of Trebekistan may lack in literary gewgaws, it succeeds in enjoyment, good nature, wit, and, at times, depth. It feels like Harris is less writing for a general audience than having a close conversation with you. His humor is self-deprecating but endlessly positive (which is maybe what you need to see the life lessons in a television game show) and applied to writing, it quickly lends a sense of intimacy. It's a well-honed stage skill, in fact--Harris did standup for years--that is translated well to the page. Here is a genius at making strangers feel comfortable around him, and is it any wonder he constantly finds the good in people? I've no reason to assume that he's cynical about wielding this power, but beneath the disarming modesty, I hope it's something that Mr. Harris realizes and appreciates.

As you may have guessed, Prisoner of Trebekistan is an account of roughly ten years of the author's life as he competed on television quiz shows. The Jeopardy! challenges make a fine outline for the broader personal growth that he experienced in this time, and he's pretty good at giving the play-by-play highlights of important games. From these dramatic anchors, he launches off to discuss his study program and how it took over his life, amateur cognitive science (applied and theoretical), and the unplanned events that surround this or any effort. Without saying so explicitly, he paints his early hunger for information as something to fill the missing parts in his life (family injustices, deficiencies in his own character), and as he grows into this, and grows into his various relationships, the thirst for facts becomes a thirst for context, and, you can feel peace of mind within the man's grasp. It's very Siddhartha. And it's a nice thing to be able to share.

Purposefully, Harris frequently injects some Eastern-flavored philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Everything is connected he intones with mock solemnity. He goes on about this, pointing out how the brain remembers individual facts and concepts, connects with unfathomable complexity, and weights them based on the intensity of the experience. He extemporizes on people's habitual thought patterns, mnemonic techniques, and on the universality of human experience. (Incidentally, I think this is why I like fiction so much. I have a lot of memories tied up in plot points or stirring settings or dramatic characters, and beneath all that prose, there's always an insight on that intertextual human universe. Maybe if I'm even on a quiz show...) The best trick that Harris uses in this book is demonstrating the connectiveness of these concepts by springing them at various points in his narrative. An enjoyable read overall.

(Disclosure 1: I read Bob Harris's blog on occasion. He was so enthralled with having written this book, I felt obligated to buy it.)

(Disclosure 2: I took the Jeopardy! test when it was offered on line, six months or so ago. They never called me back.)

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tiger barbs said...

i adore the friday pudublogging!

i've been waiting for the prisoner of trebekistan, wondering if it was worth buying. i was hoping you'd say it wasn't, because i need more books like a picnic needs ants [or thunderstorms].

Keifus said...

(For some reason, not surprised...he explains the pudu fascination, by the way.)

I regret to inform you, that this one is hard not to enjoy. I recommend you do what I did: intend to buy only one book, and then come back with five. What the hell, it's on the credit card, right?


fluffy black puppies said...

yep, that's exactly how it goes: go out ot buy just one book, see five more you can not live without, whip out the magic plastic ...

i've got four sets of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and two others, not so big. there are still books in boxes, too.

[i've been following the pudublogging for several months, actually]