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
Updated September 28, 2009
Jim Franco

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.

Once I reached college, I found I could toss off political tidbits to students who staged protests in school administrators’ offices and just as easily debate the veracity of a Pink Floyd/Wizard of Oz link (2) with the tie-dyed guys who loitered on the lawn outside my dorm. That said, I felt myself playing a sort of improv game with many of these assorted groups, always a bit afraid of being caught. I was fully aware that once I shared my handful of random facts on any given topic, I might have little else to say and therefore was in danger of being exposed as a poseur. Like so many people, I went through a who-am-I crisis in those years: Which of these many faces was the real me? It was my mother who eventually helped me realize that they all were.

Throughout my entire life, my selective trivia skill has proven most crucial at home. My mother and I have never had much in common. (She thought it was a weird kid thing when I would sit and read encyclopedia volumes; I thought it was a weird mom thing when she would take a pencil to the TV Guide listings grid and plot out her nightly prime-time viewing.) And I fear where our relationship might be today were it not for my pop-culture-laden hippocampus.

When I was young, I knew better than to seek her help with my science or history homework, but I would gaze awestruck as she rocked a People magazine crossword. This, I thought, was my in. And so I spent much of my formative years bonding with her over the collective works of Steven Bochco. (3)

As I grew into adulthood―and our tastes grew even further apart―I still had that connection. When my mother, an unapologetic middle-aged Backstreet Boys fan (a passion that persists to this day), giddily told me that Brian Littrell had waved to her at a concert, I didn’t respond with “Brian who?” Instead, I came back at her with “Did you see Kevin [4], too?” And it dawned on me that I was no longer using trivia just as a survival skill; I was now using it to make real connections. I wasn’t faking my way through conversations; I was steering them in directions that would favor the person I was talking to. When I called my mother recently to celebrate with her the fact that her current favorite show―the Patricia Arquette paranormal thriller Medium―was saved from cancellation, she wasn’t impressed that I knew about the show; she appreciated the fact that I knew she cared about it.

These days I think of my penchant for trivia as a genuine gift. I use it to relate to others in the way another person might use knitting or songwriting. If I care about someone, instead of making a sweater or composing a tune, I hoard tidbits of information that would be of interest to her. Fact-spewing may not seem like an act of generosity, but I now realize that it can be.

I believe I owe at least a little bit of my marital bliss to trivia: I found a woman who is as passionate about Restoration comedy as she is about 80s pop music, and I treated her to plentiful chats about both. No wonder she has continually fed the beast by buying me books like Schott’s Almanac and setting our TiVo to record Nova Science Now (thanks, honey). I suppose it’s possible that she has been keeping me on a heavy diet of miscellany so that, on the all-too-frequent occasions when our kids approach us with typically perplexing, out-of-left-field questions (for example, “Why is red called ‘red’?” and “Who invented sandwiches?” [5]), she can step back and direct the queries to me. But it’s more likely that by providing me with trivia books and eggheady TV viewing, she was doing the same thing I was―leading our conversation down an offbeat, factoid-filled path because she knew I would love it.

I’m still a trivia nut at heart, but I’m more comfortable with that identity now. Without it, how could I create the look of wonder in my 7-year-old daughter’s eyes when I tell her about the existence of monotremes? Those are egg-laying mammals, by the way. There are two: the platypus and the echidna. Both found in Australia.

1. Sofia.
2. It is said that if you play the album The Dark Side of the Moon as you watch The Wizard of Oz, the songs match some of the film’s scenes, as if the recording had been meant as an alternative sound track. I have never tried this out, by the way.
3. In case you were wondering: Hill Street Blues; L.A. Law; NYPD Blue; Doogie Howser, MD. Also Cop Rock and Capital Critters, among others.
4. Richardson. Brian’s cousin and fellow Backstreeter.
5. Legend has it that the sandwich was named for John Montagu, fourth earl of Sandwich, in the 18th century, who popularized eating meat between two slices of bread―supposedly to keep one hand free during card games. But there is evidence that the dish may have been invented much earlier.