Tuesday, August 15, 2006

I Hate Trivia

Even though I seemed to be the guy everyone wanted on his team when "Trivial Pursuit" was played in the '80s. I'm glad I'm not alone in my contempt. J. Peder Zane also explains just why trivia sucks:

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.

Yes. It's not the collection of minutiae, but the inability to connect them to each other, and to anything substantial, that makes bits of trivia just glittery objects for blackbirds to collect.

Having slammed trivia, I'll now give you some. Trivial means "of the trivium," which was the Latin word for the first three of the seven liberal arts -- grammar, logic, rhetoric, as distinguished from the quadrivium -- arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy.

Trivium literally means "place where three roads meet," and Latin trivialis also had a sense of "commonplace, vulgar" (originally "of or belonging to the crossroads"). So perhaps the trivia were the arts common to all learned men, as pposed to the more specialized quadrivium. Or it may merely have been a reference to the number three. Or some combined notion.

The verb trivialize is attested from 1846, while trivia for "trivialities, things of little consequence" was popularized in 1902 as the title of a book by L.P. Smith. Trivia itself is trivia of the kind deplored by Zane.