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1997 Black in the Saddle Again by Arthur Black

Lesson 50
Why Google-era writers still collect trivia

Forty years ago, the radio station in Oshawa, Ontario, had a teletype machine that rattled out something like three lines per hour, typewriters that jammed continuously, and a subscription to one newspaper. Interesting printed words were scarce, and my fellow disc jockeys and I gnawed on every scrap of trivia like starving rats.[1]
Someone with an iPhone and a head of coloured hair may think of trivia as an overflowing stream to be scooped up with a flick of the finger. But 1997 Leacock medalist Arthur Black,[2] who began his radio career in 1970s Thunder Bay,[3] would know what I am talking about, and I’m sure that this explains why he became a trivia stalker and compulsive “Idea Thief.”
In the opening of his medal-winning book Black in the Saddle Again,[4] Black admits to stealing from “books, magazines, TV programs, things I see on the street, conversations I deliberately overhear in the supermarket.” He sounds just like another guy formed in the atmosphere that attached great value to information tidbits, factoids, and odd expressions, and all of the essays in this book profit from his obsession.
The Table of Contents might be one of the funniest sections because it earnestly tries to categorize a grab bag running from dumb criminals, snoring, weird music, and worm eating to pirates, hot dogs, Shakespeare, and hockey sticks.
Mostly repackaged rants from Black’s CBC show,[5] Black in the Saddle does not have the aura of great literature. Black, for example, doesn’t sweat over transitions, usually resorting to some form of “which reminds me of the story . . .” or even, “which for some reason reminds me . . .” Often, the essays read like one-sided arguments after the third or fourth round at a bar.
But they make you laugh because Black finds reason for outrage in the trivial, loves words, and always makes bizarre connections. Sometimes he uses tidbits to lead into a personal story, sometimes he tells a personal story to introduce a news item, sometimes he pulls up trivia from history, and other times he describes something that happened that day. Sometimes, he does none of the above.
He can act the straight man, simply rattling off absurd facts for our consideration; or he can question a world of diets, tummy tucks, and corsets paralleled by the kind of starving that takes place in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh.
With blogs that feature bullet lists, 140-character messages on Twitter, and email jokes, we now swim in a tsunami of information that has no context or purpose beyond momentary amusement. Arthur Black recognized trivia as having this power as well and sometimes seemed satisfied with that.
Today, there might be little market for an Arthur Black, who merely hits us with more odd facts and trivia, even if skillfully knitted together. But Black, when he produced award-worthy material, made trivia the starting point, not the goal, and packaged it within a ball of original thinking--“ideas.” This might be the reason he called himself an “Idea Thief” and not a collector of trivia.
Whether plucked from newspapers, TV, or eavesdropping at the coffee shop, odd information has more worth when wrapped in personal reactions, feelings, thoughts, and associations--our own “ideas,” the things we can’t find with Google.
We should probably collect and save those ideas, whether on our iPhones or in our heads, not just the trivia that spawn them, and that’s the idea I will steal from Arthur Black.

Writing Exercise

Find out the average body weight of a housefly and use this information as a springboard for a discussion of ethics and morality.

[1] I worked at what was then CKLB and its sister station, CKQS–FM, in Oshawa from 1973 to 1975 as my first job after university.
[2] Arthur Raymond Black was born in Toronto on August 30, 1943. After dropping out of Radio and TV Arts at Ryerson, he travelled and worked in different jobs overseas.
[3] Black hosted the CBC Radio Noon show in Thunder Bay, Ontario, from 1976 to 1985.
[4] Today, Black can look at three Leacock Medals on his mantelpiece: for this one in 1997, for Black Tie and Tales in 2000, and for Pitch Black in 2006.
[5] By the late 1990s, his show, Basic Black, had been on the national airwaves for over a decade. It ran until 2002. Black received a number of awards for his radio work as well as his writing.