Jeopardy super-champ Mattea Roach loves reading — here are 8 books that had a big impact
The trivia star and podcast host will champion Ducks by Kate Beaton on Canada Reads 2023
How does a Jeopardy! super-champion narrow down their favourite books? For Mattea Roach, it comes down to timing.
"There's a lot of books that I've read that are great, but it wasn't what I needed to read at that time and so it doesn't stick with you in the same way," they said in an interview with CBC Books.
Roach said that the best books are those that come at the right time — a dystopian novel that expands your political views at a young age or a graphic memoir that affirms someone's queer identity.
It's almost time for the Jeopardy! star to champion the graphic memoir Ducks by Kate Beaton on Canada Reads 2023! The debate takes place March 27-30.
In the lead-up to the great Canadian book debate, Roach spoke to CBC Books about some of the books that have proved formative throughout their life.
1984 by George Orwell
"I read 1984 when I was in Grade 9 or 10 for my own personal enjoyment. I was a faux intellectual teenager and I wanted to read the important books or whatever.
It set a tone. I'm not a big genre fiction person. I'm not a science fiction reader, but I would say I am a speculative and dystopian fiction reader.- Mattea Roach
"I think it set a tone. I'm not a big genre fiction person. I'm not a science fiction reader, but I would say I am a speculative and dystopian fiction reader.
"This is an allegory about real-life society in a way that's obviously trying to make some sort of political point. A lot of books that I've enjoyed that are classic books follow that blueprint in a lot of cases."
The Trial by Franz Kafka
"The Trial is something that I read and I was like, 'This is the best book. Everyone needs to read it.' I thought it was so good. It was extremely disturbing.
I thought it was so good. It was extremely disturbing.- Mattea Roach
"There's also the weird element of it being unfinished. It was published after Kafka died. Depending on which edition of it you read, there's sometimes an addendum attached. We're not really sure how he would have done it if he had continued working on it.
"If you were going to study it in a scholarly way, I think it would be very fruitful. That's not the context that I read it in. I read it for fun."
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
"I read The Picture of Dorian Gray in high school for a class. I went to Catholic school. There's a very easy way to do a queer reading of it. That was what I would have found interesting about it at the time, though we didn't really talk about it. We talked about it as a gothic novel.
"That was a very formative moment: having to do a reading of what is not there. I find that more rewarding. There's a lot of value in escapism, but that is just not how I've traditionally engaged with media. This book was formative for me in that way."
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
"The graphic novel Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is probably the most important book that I've ever read in my life. It's a memoir about her as a young child, growing up as a tomboy who is very obviously not like other girls, who is resisting femininity and who is growing up in a time and in a household where she's really being pushed.
"It's this constant discomfort and tension. A lot of it is to do with her relationship with her dad, who died by suicide when she was in her early 20s.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is probably the most important book that I've ever read in my life.- Mattea Roach
"The important part, for me, is when Alison is going to college for the first time and she is very much coming to understand her identity as a lesbian through engaging with literature.
"I read this book for the first time when I was 18. I had a super different upbringing, but there was so much in it where I was like, 'Oh, this is like me. This is how I feel.' I was having that parallel experience of discovering these connections through reading the book.
"I have read it on my own multiple times. I've read it for class multiple times. I've written papers about it. Every time I read it, I find new stuff in it because either I've grown up and have a new perspective or, since it's a graphic novel, there's stuff in the imagery that you didn't notice before. I will always go back to it."
Skim by Jillian Tamaki & Mariko Tamaki
"It's about a teen girl in the '90s who is dealing with being an outsider in the context of going to a single-gender private school, much as I also did.
"The main character is also dealing with being a racialized person in a heavily white environment in the 1990s. There's also a lot of kids who are depressed, kids who are dealing with coming to terms with their sexual orientation or being uncertain about things.
Being a teenager is so isolating. That is a major theme of the book, that sense of isolation that the main character feels.- Mattea Roach
"I was 20 or maybe 21 when I read it. I'm almost glad I didn't read it in high school. You sometimes read things as an adult and you remember, you're not the only person who had these intense feelings as a teenager and who went through this sort of experience.
"Being a teenager is so isolating. That is a major theme of the book, that sense of isolation that the main character feels."
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
"The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall is also about a lesbian whose dad dies when she's young. My dad is alive and well. I don't know why I like the dead dad books.
"It was published in 1928. The Well of Loneliness is regarded as one of the first widely circulated and published lesbian novels. It was the subject of a lot of attempts at censorship and seizures because it was 'obscene' material and talked in real terms about someone who was a lesbian.
"The terminology that they use in the book is a little bit different because the way that we talk about queerness has changed a lot, even over the past 20 to 30 years. It's not necessarily that it was inherently bad or more progressive, it's just different.
Gay people, trans people and gender nonconforming people have been here and will continue to be here.- Mattea Roach
"It was interesting to read this older book that's considered a classic by people who read queer literature, and [know] gay people have been here, [though] the way that it's talked about is different.
"That's part of why people pop in and out of visibility at different times. Criminalization and hyper policing and things like that actually make queer and trans communities really visible because the state or other institutions apply a label and then try to control a certain population. So there's visibility, then there's periods or in different cultures, where they are maybe not as visible, but it's because it's a more normalized thing.
"Gay people, trans people and gender nonconforming people have been here and will continue to be here."
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
"I'm a big Sally Rooney person. Sally Rooney represents neurotic people who used to be competitive debaters.
"I've read all three of her novels. I read Beautiful World, Where Are You last summer. I think it's informed by the experiences that she's had since becoming a famous, successful author.
I'm a big Sally Rooney person. Sally Rooney represents neurotic people who used to be competitive debaters- Mattea Roach
"It's four main characters that are being followed. One of them is an author. She's had a couple of successful novels and is trying to grapple with the question 'How do I live up to the expectation now that I've had these books and have to do press tours?' Which is part of being an author that not all authors particularly enjoy.
"I have a photo somewhere on my phone of this page because I remember reading it and I sent it immediately to five different people. This was shortly after my Jeopardy! run had aired. I was feeling a little burnt out and overwhelmed because I had not expected to be as successful in the show as I was and consequently, did not expect the amount of press attention. I thought I was going to lose my first game.
"I think it's a completely different situation, but if you become very successful in any sort of field, that is going to affect the way that you're able to go about your normal life. I was feeling that a little bit in my own life. It was interesting that I happened to read this book at the right time."
A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
"The book that I'm reading right now is A People's History of the United States.
This book changes the way some people see the world because it really is showing the under-studied or under-discussed elements of American history in a way that shifts perspectives.- Mattea Roach
"This book changes the way some people see the world because it really is showing the under-studied or under-discussed elements of American history in a way that shifts perspectives. What is actually the Indigenous narrative of colonization? What was the Industrial Revolution and development in the U.S. like for workers? As opposed to: here's how our society developed for industrialists."
Roach's comments have been edited for length and clarity.