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Confessions of an Infomaniac

For years a trivia addict played down his encyclopedic recall. Then he realized that his lifelong curiosity could be the kindest of gifts.

By Christopher Healy
Woman in a library carries booksJim
Picture a second-grade classroom in Queens, New York, in the mid-70s. From behind her shaggy turtleneck sweater, the teacher poses a question to her class: “How many planets are in the solar system?” She points at one sheepish-looking boy in the back row for an answer. “Um, 50?” a Garanimals-clad tyke meekly ventures. That boy is not me. I’m the one sitting next to him, who immediately thrusts his arm into the air and explains that there are nine planets. And then names them all. In order. And concludes by pinpointing the precise position of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. This does not make me popular.
That vignette is a pretty typical moment in my early childhood, and as a result I had more thrown at me in school than just the epithet “teacher’s pet.” My spongelike brain, which sucked up―and never let go of―so many bits of data, helped me ace multiple-choice tests, but it was also a major social liability. I was aware that I was in danger of coming off as an intolerable know-it-all. I couldn’t stop myself from retaining all this trivia―that would have been like asking my respiratory system not to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. But I had some control over whether or not I shared it with the rest of the world. Therefore, in an attempt to avoid being labeled an annoying nerd for life, I started keeping my mouth shut. (I was only 7. I may have known the capital of Bulgaria [1; see next page], but the concept of moderation was beyond my grasp.) So instead I came across as a pathologically shy wallflower.
However, as I got a bit older, something unexpected happened. I learned that my obsession with data collection was far from a curse. It actually helped me forge and strengthen relationships (and not just with the people who wanted me on their Trivial Pursuit team). My cache of seemingly useless knowledge provided me with the keys to many a conversation that I otherwise would have been excluded from. The secret to a successful social life for me was learning to pull out the right factoid at the right time. In high school, for instance, when I approached a group of Trekkies (obvious, I know, but considering my description of elementary school, did you think I would head toward the lacrosse team first?), I knew just the right code words to get into the conversation. Despite never having seen more than a handful of Star Trek episodes, through the power of info-osmosis, I knew that Christopher Pike was the name of the original, pre–Captain Kirk skipper of the USS Enterprise (he didn’t make it to the second episode). A well-placed comparison between an awful first-day-of-school substitute teacher and the ill-fated Captain Pike ensured I was golden with those guys.
I didn’t wow just the Trekkies. Jocks no longer bounced basketballs off my forehead after I helpfully informed them that the largest Super Bowl ring in NFL history had to be specially constructed for the Chicago Bears’ William “the Refrigerator” Perry. Music aficionados nodded appreciatively in the halls once I alerted them to the fact that Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” was actually a cover of a 60s tune by soul singer Gloria Jones. I soon realized I could fudge my way through a friendly chat with almost anyone. I would never go so far as to say it made me cool, but in a pre-Internet age, where I was the closest thing to Wikipedia, my flair for facts gave people a reason to have me around.
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