Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris: A-

From the inside flap:
This is the story of a working-class guy from Ohio with little real knowledge of Ambidextrous Presidents, Things Made of Rubber, and hundreds of other categories, but who nonetheless plunges so far into cramming for Jeopardy! that it changes his relationships, bends his worldview, and literally leads him to the ends of the earth, trying to understand it all.

Prisoner of Trebekistan is more than just a memoir of some guy who played on Jeopardy! It’s a book about memory, and what is required for loads of random information to become stuck in one’s brain. It’s about how to and also how not to prepare for the game, and how the relationships around one might suffer if one dwells too long in “Trebekistan,” the realm of learning where the myriad connections between seemingly random things suddenly come into focus. And it’s also a pretty sweet love story.

Harris’ writing is generally amusing and he uses lots of colorful examples to demonstrate how the brain prioritizes memories. My only gripe about this is that when, in the first real biographical chapter, he mentions a mystery receipt he found and begans to insert all the random items he could’ve bought into his tale, I thought it was a memory exercise and tried to remember them all. I also disliked that he implied that his girlfriend (the awesome Jane) had died of cancer, when I know she hasn’t. He later explained he’d done this so the reader would experience jubilation equal to his own at learning she’d be fine. It still annoyed me.

Details of Harris’ games and strategy are included, and he’s candid about admitting his mistakes. One could read the book purely as a how-to guide and come away with valuable insight. There’s also an appendix of recommended reading for anyone who might be considering giving it a go. This book itself, however, isn’t where one should go to find a list of stuff to memorize, though I did pick up a few random bits of trivia along the way.

As Harris learns to relax more and simply have fun playing the game, he makes many good friends as he keeps getting asked back to play in various tournaments. One of these friendships results in Harris officiating at a marriage ceremony held on the Jeopardy! set. It’s completely awesome. Alex Trebek signed off on the marriage certificate as the official witness and everything.

I was initially interested in this book because of the Buffy connection, and it’s actually pretty neat. Harris is a friend of Danny Strong, who played the character of Jonathan. When the episode “Superstar,” which focused on Jonathan, aired, Strong invited friends over to watch it. Harris, who had gone through a series of chicks who assuaged his insecurities but weren’t a good match, admired the writer’s cleverness, and was soon set up on a blind date with her. Jane, as described in the book, sounds every bit as goofy and wonderful as she’s seemed to me in episode commentary or on her website. Their love story is a great (if sometimes a little skittish) one, and provides an excellent ending, as well. She totally needs to show up on my doorstep so we can hang out. Maybe go bowling or something.

I recommend Prisoner of Trebekistan on several fronts, therefore. Harris has another book out now about world conflicts that I hope to be reading eventually, as well.

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