The BBC shows a programme called Eggheads, you may have seen it. A team of challengers made up from more-or-less ordinary members of the public tries to out-quiz a team of fact-bores. There’s a variant, Revenge of the Egghead, in which one of the bores, the one who looks like Jeff Goldblum playing a hairdresser, writhes in his chair, coiling and uncoiling himself and sneering like someone auditioning for a part as a villain in Jungle Book—a villain of no real evil, no desire to tempt or corrupt, just a childish vanity that needs to be fed by scoring off others at Trivial Pursuits.
There’s the rub, though. Here are people whose confidence comes from knowing things that many others don’t. What things? They know who wrote Brothers Karamazov, but have they read it, thought about it, had their self-complacency disturbed by it? They know when the Bastille was stormed, but do they know why? Properly why, not children’s encyclopaedia why. And on and on. What do pond skaters really know about water?
Mere facts are dull, and looking at the Eggheads you see a collection of people who have probably been responsible for more boredom among their families and acquaintances than the weather. They don’t seem much troubled by self-doubt, or the terrible things that are part of knowledge. They show a disdain for popular culture, as if their mental furniture were more than a little above that; a regrettable necessity to know such things, if at all, because they will come up in quizzes. It’s a combination you see in the most serious and successful pub quizzers. (I was in a league in 2001, never repeated.)
Is it innately better to know that in 1066 Harold Godwin’s Saxons probably made their stand against William the Bastard’s invading Normans at Senlac Hill, than it is to know who won Celebrity Big Brother in 2007? Without any deeper curiosity, they’re equally frivolous, it’s just that in one case they enjoy their frivolity solemnly at the expense of others, while in the other they just like it.