Jolt Culture has twice the Trivia

Did you know: * That “the first paved road was 7 1/2 miles long and 6 feet wide and was built in Egypt … 4,600 years” ago.

* That “Antarctica is the world’s largest desert, covering 5.5 million square miles.”

* That “A typical human skeleton consists of 206 bones including 22 in the skull, 14 in the face, 1 in the throat (hyoid bone).”

* The Cracker Jack dog’s name is Bingo.

More important, do you care? If so, head down to your local bookstore or library, where the shelves are bending from the weight of books packed with such fluffy nuggets. They include “Why Do Men Have Nipples?” by Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg, M.D., “Vitamin Q: A Temple of Trivia Lists and Curious Words” by Roddy Lumsden, “One Letter Words: A Dictionary” by Craig Conley, “Why?” by Erin McHugh, “Schott’s Original Miscellany” by Ben Schott, and “Do Blue Bedsheets Bring Babies?” by Thomas Craughwell (they don’t).

There’s even a growing subgenre of books by people detailing their attempts to master trivia, such as “The Know-It-All” by A.J. Jacobs, “The Areas of My Expertise” by John Hodgman and the September title “Braniac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs” by Ken Jennings.

Scour these books and you’ll be a hit when your cocktail party guests need to know who’s the patron saint of motorists (John the Baptist); Arabic for the craving of certain foods during pregnancy (waham); the name of Popeye’s father (Poopdeck Pappy) or the person who invented the can opener (Ezra J. Warner).

Trivia, of course, is not a 21st-century phenomenon. No doubt passels of wise-apple cavemen bored their pals to tears with facts about stalactites and stalagmites. Shut up and pass the wolf’s blood, please. In modern times, “Jeopardy!” has been on the on air with only slight interruption since 1964 (Art Fleming was the first host); “The Book of Lists” was a publishing phenomena in the 1970s; and “The Guinness Book of World Records,” published in 1955 in connection with the Guinness Brewery, has become one of the best-selling books of all time.

But of late, trivia books have become so plentiful that the Wall Street Journal has written about their growing importance to publishing’s bottom line. And The New York Times ran a trend piece tracking their emergence, with book critic Janet Maslin cleverly dubbing them “So what” books

After riffling through a dozen of these titles, I can understand Maslin’s mystified shrug. But I also think she’s missing the cake for the frosting. Each tidbit or bound collection of factoids may be so insignificant that calling it trivia is almost an honorific. However, this growing genre signals a profound trend in America: The rise of Jolt Culture, which combines our quest for information — this is, after all, the Age of Information — with our lust for immediate gratification.

Jolt Culture can be seen in the thrust of contemporary magazines from Rolling Stone and People to Maxim and Entertainment Weekly, which increasingly rely on pictures and short captions rather than longer form stories. Newspapers are responding to the trend through the heavier use of what’s known as “alternative story forms” — quick-hit information boxes that boil down the essential facts of any given story to a few easily digested tidbits. It is apparent in the rise of “talking-head” television, which substitutes passion for analysis, and in films that trade in jaw-dropping spectacle rather than taut narratives about characters facing tough moral choices.

Jolt Culture is often conflated with the “dumbing-down” of America. They are, undoubtedly, partners in crime. Trivia books — which strip meaning from knowledge, providing us with information but the not the context we need to apply it — embody this relationship. At bottom, they provide us with fleeting sensation. It is not only neat to know that Luxembourg has the highest gross domestic product per capita of any nation ($58,900 per person, according to the 2005 CIA World Factbook) or that an average apple has 47 calories. Such trivia is also strangely satisfying. Like celebrity shots in People magazine, or a Keith Olbermann rant, it holds our attention to the point of mesmerism. Until — a few seconds later — it’s over.

That’s the power of Jolt Culture. In this high-tech, service economy, where increasing numbers of us work with our heads instead of our hands, earn our living by what we know rather than what we can do, Jolt Culture puts a premium on that which we value most: information.

And it reflects two other key developments. First, our jobs require such a high level of specialized knowledge and obligate us to spend so much time reading, absorbing material relating to our own little worlds, that we don’t want to work too hard for pleasure. We don’t want books, television shows or movies to make demands on our minds or emotions — we want them to soothe us, delight us and then leave us alone.

Second, our culture has become so fast-paced that many of us have lost the patience required to mine the deeper satisfactions of old. In a nutshell — ’cause that’s how we like it — information has become entertainment that we want quick, fast, in-a-hurry.

As someone who likes challenging movies and complicated books — there are still a few of us out here — what can I say except: Not good! But I do know that the rise of Jolt Culture is not something we can shrug away with a dismissive “so what.”

(c) J. Peder Zane, Staff Writer The New & Observer.com


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