The Nontrivial Pursuit of Quiz Glory

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Some of my earliest memories of my late grandfather involve him turning from one grandchild to the next, asking each one a random (but not too challenging) general-knowledge question: “What’s the capital of Belgium?” “Who invented the telephone?” When we answered correctly, he would beam. “Ten points!”

Just like at Hogwarts (“A gazillion points to Gryffindor!”), nobody tallied these points. They were a vehicle for instant gratification, and for the deeper pleasure I’ve come to associate with being right. (It’s a feeling one can mitigate and occasionally suppress, but never — in my experience, anyway — quite outgrow.)

Something similar — though on a far more elaborate scale — is at work in Samanth Subramanian’s Guardian piece on the global subculture of quizzing. Part personal narrative (Subramanian has been a “quiz obsessive” since childhood) and part cultural history, it tries to explain why, at an age where endless amounts of information are a Google search away, millions are avid participants in quiz events, from informal pub nights to competitive tournaments.

The answer is complex, and Subramanian recognizes the irony in that. But one of the most compelling arguments he makes is that quizzes aren’t about a linear process from ignorance or uncertainty to truth. Instead, they inspire circuitous acts of creativity. Faced with a question, we must summon not just all the facts we’ve memorized, but all the anecdotes, emotions, and experiences that surround those details.

Admitting to such a fevered love isn’t a good look, I realise. The very premise of quizzing can appear to be a fetishising of book learning: of facts memorised for their own sake, instead of being learned from any true engagement with life. At best, this can feel charmingly antique in the 21st century, when the internet and its infinite electronic lobes do our remembering for us. At worst, quizzers are thought to suck up facts only to win meaningless contests that cater to their intellectual vanities; they are typecast as people who have such a transactional relationship with knowledge that they really can be said to know very little at all.

But at its finest, quizzing today is never about shallow recall; it’s an exercise in nimble thinking, and possibly the only forum where the entirety of your life – everything you’ve ever seen, read, tasted, heard, heard of, or lived through – can be marshalled as pure knowledge. A friend of mine, an English professor in a college in Bangalore, once called quizzing an act of bricolage – a term that the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss used to describe how even a small number of ideas may be mixed and combined to create something novel and unforeseen. The process thrives on freshness and play, and it holds a sense of limitless possibility – of producing many, many things we never knew out of the few things we do know.

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