Because I Said So!

by Ken Jennings

 

You may recall that I read a previous Ken Jennings book, Maphead, an exploration of geography and the subcultures that surround it. I liked it, so I read his new book.

Because I Said So! is a bit different, consisting of dozens of common myths that parents drill into the heads of their children, and determining them to be true, or false, or somewhere in between. Whereas Maphead was divided into chapters, each relating to a specific geography topic, each of the myths in this book only gets about a page, making it less of a book and more of a list. (Imagine Buzzfeed’s “100 Myths That May or May Not Be True, by Ken Jennings,” if that helps. Or not- I don’t want to compare Jennings, a writer whom I respect, to the gif-posting wannabe journalists at Buzzfeed.)

Because I Said So!So I was a little disappointed by the format. I feel that in general, a book should be readable; you should be able to look at a book for more than two minutes without a jarring change of subject. If you can’t, it’s just a reference book, and I’ve found that those tend to sit on the shelves, uselessly. And that’s not what I’m about.

Still, Jennings is a good writer, and a smart dude, and he’s able to make pretty mundane shit funny. He also answers some questions I’ve been wondering about forever. Will running or walking in the rain keep you dryer? Hint: if you don’t care, you probably won’t care for the book.

Since reading it last week, I’ve already been able to pull this book out for use as a reference, telling someone how bad tanning can be for your skin. (Hypocritically, I might add. While I never go out with the intention of tanning, I tend to get burned every time I hit the beach.) I can only hope that I’ll be able to remember some of these myths, both debunked and confirmed, so that in the future I can look them up if I need to. Of course, I could just turn to the internet, but that’ll give me three opinions on every two-sided issue. And since I don’t have the time or the will to sift through the statistics on my own, I’m perfectly content just trusting Jennings.

There were a few things I was very surprised to learn. For example, sugary food is apparently no worse for your teeth than any other carb-heavy food. It also doesn’t cause kids to go crazy. In an instant, literally everything I know about sugar was turned upside down, although maybe that says more about my ability to remember any of the three chemistry classes I’ve taken in my life.

Perhaps most importantly, Jennings seems pretty happy giving helicopter parents their comeuppance, and I’m pretty happy to seem them taken down a peg as well. The myth that there are people out there putting razors in Halloween candy, for example, is shown to be a ridiculous falsehood. I mean, I can’t imagine anyone doing that kind of thing without picturing them as Snidely Whiplash. Yeah, the dude who kept tying that chick to the railroad tracks.

Snidely Whiplash

This dude

Jennings gives a similar treatment to stranger danger and the idea that there are people just chilling outside elementary schools, waiting to sell laced drugs to our kids. I don’t know why it’s so funny to ridicule parents for their ridiculous overparenting, although it might be because some politicians use these moral panics to get elected or create horrible public policy. (Or both.) In any case, I enjoy it, and it pleases me to see hard evidence that parents have no idea what they’re talking about, at least some of the time. Though I think I would advise my kids to stay away from anyone who looks like Snidely.

To be clear, this is not the Mandy Moore movie; it’s a collection of parental advice that Ken Jennings attempts to verify or debunk. This is a well-written and well-researched book, and I was entertained, but there’s not much substance here, and I wouldn’t recommend it to a casual reader.

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Maphead

by Ken Jennings

 

I have in recent years discovered a mild passion for geography. When I go to a new place, I always check Google Maps to get a sense of the area; I have a map of my hometown of Arlington, Virginia, on my wall; and whenever I visit a city I try to get a sense of how it is laid out. Last summer, I went to Miami with some friends of mine, and I took great satisfaction in being able to figure out where we were with ease. My friends, not so much. (I mean, how hard is it to figure out? It’s a standard grid system. If you can count, you can navigate.) In my youth I could locate all the states on a map and name all their capitals, and in high school I had all 100 senators and their home states memorized. I liked being able to get places in my region- the exception being the pride I take in my ignorance of Maryland’s geography. Despite this, I took up Maphead with a slight sense of apprehension.

It’s not that I don’t respect Ken Jennings; I mean, the dude won millions of dollars by answering trivia questions for months on Jeopardy! Not easy. But trivial knowledge doesn’t make an entertaining person. I’ve seen the kids that can just rattle off pi to some amazing degree, and they’re not the kids I would have a beer with, not that I would supply alcohol to minors. But this book was not really what I expected.

As with other non-fiction books, I expected to pick up Maphead and learn some geography. It actually contains shockingly little, aside from Ken’s brief history of our collective geographic illiteracy. Rather, the best way to think of this book is as a bridge between the reader and the eponymous mapheads, or perhaps as a guidebook for the geographically inclined to find their niche. (Sorry for the geography terms.) Come to think of it, what Maphead most reminds me of are the works of Bill Bryson, travel writer extraordinaire: Jennings seems to take as much pleasure exploring the world of geography as Bryson takes in his journeys to England and Australia.

In each chapter Maphead explores a different community of interest, from antique map collectors to geography bee competitors to interstate highway enthusiasts (who knew?). Jennings seems at ease in the presence of these weirdos, while admitting that travelers who compulsively check countries off of a master list are, well, weirdos. I found myself drawn to each of these groups to some extent, and I think I might even try my hand at geocaching. For noobs, geocaching is the attempt to locate a small container of trinkets based on a set of GPS coordinates, and it seems people can get addicted really easily. But perhaps the fact that this even appeals to me marks me as a map nerd; I have no idea whether anybody else I know would even think of participating.

The main thrust of the book is that we all have a geographer within us, but that most need a push to get from the childhood love of treasure seeking to a healthy respect for where things are and how to get there. If Jennings is right, this book should be easy to read and enjoyable for just about everyone, whether they can find the U.S. on a map or not. I think he’s right, but I’m pretty sure having some interest in or knowledge of geography would make this book more accessible.

One minor quibble: why do you have to use so many footnotes, Ken? Too many interesting stories were broken up this way. Endnotes next time.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has expressed any interest whatsoever in geography, maps, or roads. Or geocaching.