Six ways to stay (or get) sharp

One of my basic rules of being a good copy editor (other than all that grammar Nazi stuff) is to know a little about a lot. Yeah, most of us on non-universal desks specialize in some way, either in news, sports, arts, business or features, but it’s always a good idea to be familiar with a variety of topics. It’s hard to edit stories with authority if you don’t have a good grasp of basic current events and trivia.

Know what the top-grossing film of all time is, considering inflation? (It’s “Gone With the Wind.”) What about who won the 1976 World Series? (The Reds swept the Yankees.)  Who on earth is the President of the European Council? (Herman van Rompuy.)

“But Kels,” you say, “how does one learn all of this and become more well-read?”

Here are six ways to increase your general knowledge that don’t involve eating an encyclopedia.

1. Watch “Jeopardy.”

My grandmother is not college-educated. She only recently got a passport (she’s going with us to London next month). She’s still using dial-up Internet. But she knows a freakish amount of cultural minutiae. How? “Jeopardy.”

“Jeopardy” is on pretty much every week day, and its rotating categories ensure that you’ll never get bored. You can also watch the Kid, Teen and College versions of “Jeopardy” and goggle at how some nerdy 12-year-old knows more than you do.

2. Visit Sporcle.

Apart from being perhaps the greatest time-waster since Minesweeper, Sporcle offers a lot of knowledge disguised cleverly as quizzes. If it exists, there’s a Sporcle quiz on it. Countries’ exports, beer consumption, movie quotes, European monarchs, Hogwarts staff, all-time leading NBA scorers. You may feel like an idiot if you can name only 10 Danish monarchs (the ones named Christian, yeah!), but surrendering and clicking the “I Give Up” button is perhaps the greatest lesson of all.

2. Set up Google Reader and use it.

I subscribe to a few dozen sites and blogs through Google Reader. Most of them are tech- or journalism-related, but a few are for business, politics, travel, cooking, entertainment and other areas. Whenever you find a blog or site you like, link it to your Google Reader. You don’t even have to read every blog entry that comes in; skim and see what’s interesting. You’ll be amazed at what you learn. You can also supplement a Google Reader blogroll with a Twitter feed; follow your favorite bloggers, writers and personalities on Twitter. If you follow only your in-person friends on Twitter, you’re missing out.

4. Consume foreign media.

Because domestic (domestic meaning whatever country you live in, not necessarily just American) media inherently only offers a limited or even biased viewpoint, it’s imperative that you look at news sources outside your border. It may be the anglophile in me talking, but pound-for-pound (no pun intended), it doesn’t get any better than the BBC in terms of global, even-handed reporting on all levels. I also like Der Spiegel.

As a bonus, pick a news source from a country whose language you’re studying. Not only will you get news from another perspective, but you’ll also practice your foreign-language skills.

5. Travel smart.

The only museum in the bum-you-know-what town you’re driving through celebrates a mutant ear of corn. See it anyway. That historical society down the road? Pay it a visit. The brass plate on the downtown bank says someone was shot there 125 years ago trying to rob it. Cool, look him up (or her; I pass no judgment).

Some museums and historical sites are more glamorous than others (many of which can be seen in the photos of yours truly), but all can be valuable if you’re open-minded. No museum is too small, too cheesy or too weird that it can’t be enjoyed.

6. Play in pub quizzes

These are more popular in the UK than in America (in my experience, anyway), but a lot of bars and restaurants are doing them now. The concept is simple: Go out with a group of friends, participate in a trivia contest, have a few drinks and eat. If you win, you get money, drinks or some other prize. If you lose, you still had fun, and you got to learn some new stuff. Win-win.

So there you have it. Six fun, relatively pain-free ways to expand your general knowledge and help you be a better copy editor and a better citizen of humanity in general. Happy learning, kids.

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