- Publisher: Scribner
- Year: 2011
- Pages: 288
Ken Jennings may always be known as “that guy from Jeopardy!“; that’s certainly how I tend to think of him. For those of you who don’t know, Jennings became a minor celebrity in 2004 when he won 74 straight games of the popular TV quiz show, winning just over $3 million total. I expected a brief time in the limelight for Jennings; when he wrote a book called Brainiac, about his experience in quiz shows and the broader world of trivia buffs, I was unsurprised and wrote it off as a gimmick. When he wrote a second book, Ken Jennings’s Trivia Almanac, I once again took it for an easy way to ride the short-lived wave of fame that carries intellectuals.
But then I saw Maphead, a book about cartographers, self-proclaimed map geeks, and the strange, occluded subculture of geography and maps. My curiosity got the better of me: I gave it a try.
- Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
- Year: 2011
- Pages: 464
I’ve never been much of a comic fan; my brother liked them for the both of us. Despite a flirtation with our local comic store’s annual summer clearance sale, and a long-lived passion for the 6-issue Double Dragon series in 1991, the medium left me largely cold, and I eventually became enamored of the long-form novel.
As a result of either my age or my eventual indifference to the format, I was unaware or unimpressed of most of the important happenings in the medium. I learned most of the historical ones—e.g., the origins the Batman and Superman, and their eventual censorship or transmogrification during the panic of the 1950s—from David Hadju’s The Ten-Cent Plague, and many of the latter-day events either from first-hand knowledge—e.g., hearing about Bane breaking Batman’s back or Doomsday killing Superman—or finally reading the graphic novels themselves—e.g., Alan Moore’s critical 1980s work The Watchmen and V for Vendetta. For what it’s worth, I tried reading Roger Stern’s 1994 The Death and Life of Superman, though it was beyond my 9-year-old self.
- Masters of Doom
- Publisher: Random House
- Year: 2003
- Pages: 352
I can still remember buying—as a child of 7 or 8—Doom at the local grocery store; it was $5, and came in the form of two 3.5″ floppy disks. At the time, I had no real inclination what it was, other than than package promised a first-person shooter video game that involve monsters and machine guns. What’s not to like? At the time, I could not have known than I was only one of many tens of thousands—hundreds of thousands—discovering the same phenomenon. Of course, I had only bought the shareware version, which comprised the first of three episodes, and lacked the finances to pay $40 or $50 for the full version, but I played those 9 levels over and over again, and my new obsession also caused me to pluck the first of four novelizations from my dad’s bookshelf. Eventually, I would get the full, expanded Final Doom version of the game, and its followup, Doom II.
- The Disappearing Spoon
- Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
- Year: 2010
- Pages: 400
Several years ago I read Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson’s , a book of popular science whose title came from a theory about Napoleon’s botched invasion of Russia during the winter. The theory goes, as Le Couteur and Burreson reported, that the buttons of Napoleon’s soldiers, which were made of tin, turned to powder in the extreme cold, thus exposing their tender torsos to the wind. Though it seems implied, the authors don’t come down strong on either side of the historical reality of this. Though the confluence is in doubt—indeed, it seems unlikely—the individual components of the tale are true: there were a lot of dead Frenchmen that winter, and tin—a perfectly solid metal under normal conditions—does turn into powder in extreme cold.
- The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History
- Publisher: Hill and Wang
- Year: 2011
- Pages: 272
The first time I physically remember hearing the Yugo referenced in pop culture was seeing Die Hard with a Vengeance on TV (this must have been 1997 or so, when I was 12 or 13), though I must have known about it before because I laughed: Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson drive a commandeered Yugo down a busy freeway, and when Bruce (John) complains about their pokey pace, Samuel (Zeus) replies “It’s a Yugo; it’s built for economy, not for speed!”
I somehow realized or knew, though I don’t remember how or when I would have learned it, that the word “Yugo” was a punchline for a car only a few steps better than a pennyracer. Jason Vuic’s The Yugo is the story of how the hapless automobile came to be the butt of so many jokes, but also how it ever-so-briefly was a commercial success, and how one enigmatic business was behind it all.