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    Posted on Nov 5, 2017

    9 Books That Actually Helped Me Win On "Jeopardy!"

    It takes a lot of work to be this nerdy.

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    My personal aesthetic, if any, is knowing incredibly esoteric bits of trivia and trying to shoehorn them into any conversation at any cost.


    As you can imagine, I'm fun at parties. As a youth, I sat in the backseat of our family minivan and salivated over world almanacs and was known to plop down on the living room floor with the "B" section of the encyclopedia. I just freakin' love trivia, and my brain has a knack for remembering only the most random facts, like which president went skinny-dipping in the Potomac River (John Quincy Adams).

    Anyway, in October 2014, I achieved any trivia nerd's dream and competed — and won — on Jeopardy!. Preparing for it involved watching a lot of old episodes and practicing wagering, but honestly, about 80% of what I knew was hardwired into my brain by many years of reading books on whatever interested me.

    So for anyone else who's similarly fascinated by random crap, trying to become a bar trivia champ, or hoping to be on Jeopardy!, here is a sampling of my personal canon* of formative texts.

    *These lean heavily toward US history, but these are just the ones that appealed to me personally, so make of them what you will.

    1. Uncle John's Bathroom Reader (any edition) by Bathroom Reader's Institute

    No, you don't need to read this on the toilet. Learning can happen in any room! (Ugh, I'm sorry, even I can't stand myself sometimes.) Anyway, pretty much everyone who finds out I was on Jeopardy! asks, "How did you learn all of that stuff?" and honestly, I think the Bathroom Readers are the biggest source. There are about a zillion editions, and all of them are just great. They have short, easily digestible chapters on absolutely anything you can dream of, from the history of Coca-Cola to the weirdest ways people have died. My favorite part, though, is the short facts printed at the bottom of each page. They're like the Snapple facts, except they're all real and you don't need to like iced tea to read them. Here are a few, for your enjoyment:

    • Your skin weighs about 11 pounds.

    • Walmart employs more people worldwide than there are people living in New Mexico.

    • The Greenland shark can live for 200 years.

    Get it from Amazon for $10.99+, Barnes & Noble for $14.36+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound here.

    There are so many other trivia books out there, but The Best Bar Trivia Book Ever: All You Need for Pub Quiz Domination or Game Night Trivia: 2000 Trivia Questions to Stump Your Friends are both pretty good, too.

    2. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States by Bill Bryson

    Picking up any of Bryson's dozens of books is like attending your college's most interesting lecture taught by the most delightful, witty professor. He's written on everything from the summer of 1927 to his experience walking the Appalachian Trail, but my favorite is this one, which is about Americana, and how we got all of the words associated with it, like Uncle Sam and Yankee Doodle. There's a whole chapter on Hollywood, including stories of how all of the '30s starlets picked their stage names, and others about shopping, advertising, and sports.

    This, along with another Bryson book about language called The Mother Tongue, were my favorite car trip books, aka ones I would read aloud to my parents as we went on day trips to battlefields and historic towns (seriously, my brand is strong). The whole thing is written in such an engaging way that pretty much every sentence made me say, "Oh my god, I never knew that!" as I read it, which is truly the sign of a great book. Americana (and etymology) comes up a lot on Jeopardy!, more so than you might realize, and I'm so happy I basically memorized this book years ago.

    Get it from Amazon for $3.61+, Barnes & Noble for $1.99+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound here.

    Words are good, and you don't need to be a spelling bee champ to appreciate them! If you want to branch out from just the history of English, try The Language Instinct or Empires of the Word.

    3. The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2017 by Sarah Janssen

    I could talk about almanacs for hours. I have talked about almanacs for hours. Every year, a new one is published to reflect the most recent changes in the world, and it's filled with current events, pop culture, and my personal favorite, geography. My people, knowing even a tiny bit about geography is so important, not just for Jeopardy! (although it's very helpful for the show) but in life! Having a general sense of where things are located is guaranteed to make you feel more informed and ~worldly~. If you've avoided the news for the past year — and who can blame you? — just buy yourself a damn almanac to get up to speed on all of the garbage that's been swirling around.

    Get it from Amazon for $10.99+, Barnes & Noble for $5+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound here.

    Reference books are the bomb. Preorder the 2018 almanac on Amazon for $10.39+ or Barnes & Noble for $10.48+.

    4. A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

    As you might expect, my all-time favorite class in high school was AP US History. Not only did I have the best teacher (shoutout to Mrs. Webster), but it was the first time I read Zinn's landmark book about the other side of American history. Sure, we used it as a textbook, but that didn't stop me from reading it under the covers with a flashlight after my 10 pm bedtime. All of the classic moments from the past, including Columbus's arrival and WWII, are told from the perspective of people whose stories are rarely told. Their accounts are sobering, depressing, and so vivid that they became seared into my brain.

    Get it from Amazon for $7.54+, Barnes & Noble for $8.99+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound here.

    No one will ever compete with my love for Zinn, but Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong and A People's History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium are both strong contenders if you also love his book.

    5. Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac: 8,888 Questions in 365 Days by Ken Jennings

    For those of you who aren't familiar with Ken Jennings, he's the Franklin Delano Roosevelt of Jeopardy!. The man won an unprecedented (and still-to-be-topped) 74 episodes back in 2004, and has spent the ensuing years writing about trivia and making dad jokes on Twitter. But my favorite fruit of his labor is this tome. A friend gave it to me in the middle of my Jeopardy! prep, and I am eternally grateful to her for it.

    The book has a page for each day of the year, and each page has a set of facts and questions themed to that day. So, for example, the Jan. 22 page starts with a fact about Henry III granting a charter for the very first Scarborough Fair in 1253, which is followed by questions about parsley, sage, rosemary, and Time magazine. Yes, the rest of the book is equally pun-heavy.

    My brain is particularly eager to tie a date or number to everything — I've been known to memorize birthdays after being told them once — so this book is like my dream come true. And honestly, that kind of context is great for anyone trying to learn a thing or two.

    Get it from Amazon for $9.99+, Barnes & Noble for $1.99+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound here.

    Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy! is also an INCREDIBLY interesting and helpful insidery look at what it's like to compete on Jeopardy! for all you Alex Trebek fangirls and boys and people out there.

    6. The American President: The Human Drama of Our Nation's Highest Office by Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt

    I know exactly when I first became fascinated by the US presidents. It was in fourth grade, when my teacher Ms. Schneider was reading this book to the class. I must've looked spellbound, because she took me aside after class and told me to take the book home to read again. Not long after, I picked up the Kunhardts' book on one of my mom's and my many trips to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. This bad boy was already damaged when I plucked it off of the shelf, so we got it for a discount, and when I tell you I damaged it even more, I mean that the cover is held together with several pieces of packing tape.

    Terri Pous

    This book is huge — 512 pages and quite heavy — but that didn't stop me from shoving it into my backpack and bringing it on every vacation I went on from the ages of 10 through 16, much to the entertainment of my sisters. But it's really that good! It's one of the most in-depth and readable presidential history books, and it has a ton of never-before-seen photos of the White House, most of the presidents, and their families. Those pictures are really, really good and they make the presidents seem like real people. The book is a little outdated at this point (I'm pretty sure it only goes as far as the Clinton years), but that doesn't take away from its greatness. I have read many, many presidents books over the years, and this one is by far my favorite.

    Get it from Amazon for $3.75+.

    I could talk about my recommendations for presidential trivia books for hours, but in lieu of that, I'll just recommend these two great titles: America's First Families or Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents: Strange Stories and Shocking Trivia from Inside the White House.

    Aaaaand if you're looking for a one-off presidential biography, you really can't go wrong with Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt, Truman, or Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

    7. The Handy Weather Answer Book by Kevin Hile

    Look, I am not here to defend or even explain my interests, ok? This one seems a little out of step with the rest of them, sure, but I have an intense fascination with weather, and this book both helped calm some fears and stoke others. Anyway, this is more of a facts-/trivia-based approach to weather, as opposed to a sciencey one, so keep that in mind. If that suits your fancy, though, you'll love it like I did and still do. It has a lot of sections on crazy weather events throughout history, and explains some truly WTF ones, like St. Elmo's Fire. And considering I recently got a question about St. Elmo's Fire right at bar trivia, I can say this book has been preeeetty darn helpful.

    Get it from Amazon for $11.88+, Barnes & Noble for $1.99+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound here.

    If you, like Bill Nye, thinks science rules, consider reading We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe or A Short History of Nearly Everything.

    8. A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance – Portrait of an Age by William Manchester

    All your historical European faves make an appearance in this utter classic — Anne Boleyn! Martin Luther! Leonardo da Vinci! The gang is literally all here. So much of our current world (not to mention Jeopardy! clues) is informed by the Medieval era and the Renaissance, and Manchester does an unparalleled job at describing the key events and figures so that you actually remember who's who. It's a huge — and hugely important — span of time, which can seem overwhelming, but this book is the perfect way to digest and learn it all. This is another one I read for school, and liked so much I decided to get a copy of my own. It's called history. Learn it.

    Get it from Amazon for $9.99+, Barnes & Noble for $1.99+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound here.

    World history is an overwhelmingly broad category, but some good starter books are Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, or Why the West Rules — for Now.

    9. The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin

    The law, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court never seem more human and relatable than they do in this book. It focuses on the Supreme Court in the post-Roe v. Wade years, particularly when William Rehnquist was chief justice. If you want to know all about the close personal friendship between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, this book has it! If you want an up-close look at how the court decides the cases that affect your day-to-day life, yep, that's all in there, too. Even if you just want a better context for knowing weird-sounding Latin legal phrases, this book can do that for you. I read it in, like, three days, and after, I felt like I could take on Judge Judy AND Jeopardy!. If that's not a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is.

    Get it from Amazon for $7.28+, Barnes & Noble for $1.99+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound here.

    Mmmmm legal history. Do yourself a favor and also check out All The President's Men or Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63.

    What books have taught you everything you know? Tell me in the comments!


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