In 2019, James Holzhauer made game-show history when a winning streak on the American game show Jeopardy! earned him almost $3.4 million in prize money. At the time, this was the second-highest amount ever won on the show, though two contestants have since accrued more.
Holzhauer made headlines not just for the amount he won, but for his aggressive strategy, which involved answering the toughest questions first and betting big when the game allowed. As The New York Times wrote at the time, it was as though Holzhauer had made Jeopardy! his personal ATM: the then-34-year-old’s “enormous winnings and vast margins of victory almost give the impression he has broken the game”.
But Holzhauer didn’t break the game. He had a lot of know-how from his career as a professional sports bettor in Las Vegas, and an unlikely secret weapon in his back pocket: children’s books. “I’ve found that in an adult reference book, if it’s not a subject I’m interested in, I just can’t get into it,” Holzhauer said of his preparations for the trivia show. “I was thinking, what’s the place in the library I can go to get books tailored to make things interesting for uninterested readers? Boom. The children’s section.”
I’ve been thinking of Holzhauer lately because I’ve also been learning fascinating things from children’s books. In that mysterious way three-year-olds pluck obsessions from thin air, my son loves all things plastic. So I got him a lift-the-flaps book on the topic and figured I’d struggle through. But then I learnt that plastic was originally invented as an environmentally friendly alternative to ivory for snooker balls. And that plastic itself can be made from, among other things, algae. And then I started to get interested.
The kids’ book on plastics has made me more conscious of the way I use plastic in my everyday life. I knew – in the vaguest possible way, the same way I believe I should not drink water from the bathroom tap, or avoid saying “Nice to meet you” in case we’ve met before – that it was not easy to recycle plastic. But from the book – called, appropriately enough, Questions and Answers about Plastic – I learnt that this is partly because, even in instances when you can recycle plastic to make more plastic, you need to add new bits of plastic to the mix. (No one has said “plastic” this many times since The Graduate, by the way.)
To all this you might say that I should have listened better in year 10 science. You’re right, and to Mr Slade, I’m sorry I didn’t try harder to grasp photosynthesis. Still, another chance to learn how the world works, in midlife no less, has been an unexpected joy of raising small children. It’s even changing my behaviour in small but meaningful ways, making me less inclined to pick up a supposedly “recycled” straw at the local coffee shop.
The wonder of being able to share books we enjoyed as children with our children is a more familiar concept. In years past, friends have spoken of the joys of revisiting Harry Potter with their little ones – or The Secret Garden, or Seven Little Australians. Parents hope, and even expect, that their kids will develop a love of reading through being read to. Yet I never considered that the pleasure of reading with children could flow the other way.