Monday, November 27, 2006

Visiting Trebekistan

I've been holding off writing this post, because I didn't want to spill some beans for a particular reader. But now I know it's safe, so I'll go ahead.

One of the great things about this here "blogosphere" (even more so than the rest of the World Weird Web) is the way one can stumble from one place to another and meet all kinds of new and interesting people, places, and things. And books to read. One of the topics I have meant to cover in this blog is books I've read, but that seems to elude me thus far.

But I want to write about one, partly because I discovered it via blogs, and partly because I really liked it, and partly because it hit home in a number of unexpected ways for me.

Let's cut to the chase, and then I can explain the back story.

The book in question is Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris. I've mentioned Bob and his blog a few times here, mostly because he's led me to some interesting stuff (including pudus). His blog is often funny, as well as insightful, in part because he is (or has been) by trade a comedian.

I was attracted to the book partly because the proprietors of several blogs I read recommended it, and I had appreciated Bob's writing. But more than that, I am a longtime fan of the TV show Jeopardy!. And among other things, Trebekistan is about Bob's experiences trying to get on the show, getting on the show, studying, winning, losing, and so on. If you like Jeopardy!, you'll find something to like in Trebekistan.

But the book is about much more than that. And that's good.

It turns out that Bob Harris and I are approximately the same age, and although we have different backgrounds, we went through some of the same stages at similar times, so I could relate to a lot of what he writes about. That was cool. And he has a rather offbeat sense of humor, which appeals to me. And his venture into Trebekistan brings him into contact with a professor of Rhetoric at Berkeley, which happens to be where I studied (although not from the professor in question).

And then there's Jeopardy!.

I can remember vividly, sitting at home as a kid, watching Jeopardy! with my family, and realizing that my mother knew a lot of the correct questions (though she was truly devastating when it came to Name That Tune). Anyway, being a kid, I figured Mom should go on Jeopardy!, be on TV, win some money, get famous. But mostly be on TV. Mom explained that although she knew a lot of the answers, she was sure she wouldn't be able to call them up under the pressure of the game. Prisoner of Trebekistan is about, among other things, what it takes to acquire enough knowledge to succeed, and also what it takes to be able to recall that information in a game setting. On TV. It's fascinating stuff.

About the time I was reading the book, my sister mentioned that a number of years ago when Ken Jennings was making his historic run through the Jeopardy! record book, she took a small TV to the family's mountain cabin just to follow the show. So I figured she'd like the book, too.

Here's where it gets personal. One of the things you learn about Bob from his book is that he also has a sister, and his sister has a very debilitating autoimmune disorder called Crohn's Disease. And as it turns out, so does mine. Thankfully, my sister's Crohn's doesn't seem to be as severe as Bob's sister's, and is currently well controlled by medication. But I can really relate to the frustration of trying to pin down just what's wrong (autoimmune disorders can be incredibly difficult to isolate and identify), and worrying and wishing that someone you love could just be all right.

That's tough, serious stuff for a book that is often humorous. But the book is much like life: it has its ups and downs. Bob has a good perspective on the winning and losing, and it extends well beyond the set of Jeopardy!. That's part of the power of the book: Bob lets you into places in his psyche that most people wouldn't admit to, or at least wouldn't admit us into. Whether it's his love life, his family life, his obsession with Jeopardy!, or any number of other things, the book is ultimately satisfying because it feels real.

Is it real? Hard to say. I don't actually know Bob Harris (we've exchanged exactly one e-mail in each direction), but I feel like I do, and that's very unusual for reading a book. I expected to come out of it knowing a lot about Bob Harris, and feel like I came out with much more. So that's a good deal.

It's a small world, and Trebekistan is an interesting and fun part of it. Go there. Buy the book.

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