Overview: Maphead by Ken Jennings

After I read and reviewed Plotted: A Literary Atlas, I ordered several books related to cartography from the library. One of them was Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings, 74 time Jeopardy! champion.

I’ve always liked maps and globes, but I’ve never been obsessed with them, nor am I particularly knowledgeable about geography, and I can’t deny that my sense of direction is abysmal.

But I found Maphead fascinating. It’s full of anecdotes about people who are truly infatuated with various aspects of geography, from trivia to antique maps to geocaching to highway signs. Many passages were amusing and made me want to read them aloud to my husband. (In fact I just picked up Ken Jenning’s earlier book Brainiac and I’m hoping we’ll find the time to read it aloud to each other.)

To share my enthusiasm for Maphead, here is a brief synopsis of each chapter, with some quotations to whet your appetite. If you end up reading it, make sure you let me know what you think!


Chapter 1: Eccentricity

In the opening chapter Jennings describes the origins of his obsession with maps, starting with the first atlas he bought at age seven and kept beside his pillow.

The chapter ends: “There must be something innate about maps, about this one specific way of picturing our world and our relation to it, that charms, calls to us, won’t let us look anywhere else in the room if there’s a map on the wall. I want to get to the bottom of what that is. I see it as a chance to explore one of the last remaining ‘blank spaces’ available to us amateur geographers and cartographers: the mystery of what makes our consuming map obsession tick. I will go there.”

Chapter 2: Bearing

This chapter explores whether or not mapmaking is innate.

“There are plenty of possible ways you could express to others the geographical information in your mental map: a written description, gestures, song lyrics, puppet theater. But maps turn out to be an enormously intuitive, compact, and compelling way to communicate that information. To emphasize that they’re not ‘innate’ seems to stop just short of saying that maps are an accident, the product of dozens of arbitrary cultural decisions. I think that misses the point. Just because maps aren’t innate doesn’t mean that they’re not optimal, or even inevitable.”

Chapter 3: Fault

Next Jennings turns to geography education (or lack thereof) in America.

“Being a geography buff, or even a one-eyed geography buff in the nation of the blind, isn’t easy. I was mystified as a child to read about adults — college-educated adults! — who couldn’t point out the United States on a world map. I was accustomed to the fact that not all of my odd little obsessions were shared by the general public, but geography was the only case where I had to read headline after headline about America’s mass dismissal of what I held so dear. But we try not to take it personally, we mapheads. Maybe it makes some of us a little smug, to be so obviously superior to the unwashed masses who couldn’t tell Equatorial Guinea from Papua New Guinea if their lives depended on it. But in my experience, most of us just want to be helpful: we like to give directions to confused tourists, and tell our Trivial Pursuit teammates that the Caspian Sea is the world’s largest lake, and explain where Bangladesh is every time CNN says it’s flooding again. We’re not as important a public utility as we were in the days before Google and GPS, but we’re not going to change now. Deep down, we naively believe that everyone could fall in love with maps the way we did. They just haven’t given them a chance yet.”

Chapter 4: Benchmarks

In this chapter Jennings describes his visit to the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress.

“The Map Division’s visitors come from all over the world. Recently scholars flew in from Beijing to look at nineteenth-century plans of the Chinese capital, because Washington had better maps than anything they could find in China.”

Chapter 5: Elevation

Then he dips into the world of map collectors.

“Most maps on the market are, when you think about it, of comparatively recent vintage. Almost none are more than five hundred years old — a mere blip in the march of time. Yet old maps come to us with an aura of ancient mystery and romance wildly out of proportion to their actual age. Their mottled parchment is the tawny color of sandstone and mummy linen. Their novel and faintly untrustworthy coastlines seem to have arrived from another world altogether: Atlantis, maybe, or ancient Mu. They’re not just artifacts; they are relics.”

Chapter 6: Legend

This chapter focuses on maps of fictional places.

“If nothing else, talking to mappers of imaginary worlds has taught me that there’s a greater pleasure in maps than mere wayfinding. Austin Tappan Wright never needed to hike his way across Islandia in real life, but that didn’t stop him — or his readers — from developing a fanatical devotion to maps of the place. If you never open a map until you’re lost, you’re missing out on all the fun.”

Chapter 7: Reckoning

In this chapter (one of my favourites) Jennings describes his attendance at the National Geographic Bee, where he met many of the young contestants.

“For two years, Caitlin [Snaring, the 2007 winner,] spent six or seven hours a day doing nothing but studying geography. No days off, no weekends off. She always had a book or a map in her lap — in the backseat of the car, on the bleachers at her younger brother’s baseball games. She filled ten three-ring binders with lists — mountains, islands, cities on rivers — and used colored markers to mark locations on hundreds of maps. She always prepared two copies: one with labels and one without, so she could test herself flash card-style.”

Chapter 8: Meander

Here Jennings introduces us to the Travelers’ Century Club, an association of people who have visited at least 100 countries.

“There certainly does seem to be something addictive about the disease of country collecting — some practitioners call themselves “country baggers,” as if entire nations were elusive prey to be stalked and mounted like gazelles. This table is full of men pushing eighty and ninety, but they’re eagerly sharing their latest stories of adventure and peril.”

Chapter 9: Transit

After that Jennings enters the world of “roadgeeks” or amateur highway scholars.

“Just as Britain’s oft-ridiculed ‘trainspotters’ have made a science of ticking off locomotive numbers in little notebooks, so have roadgeeks appointed themselves the guardians of America’s road network, from its mighty interstates to its tiniest country lanes. They can tell the difference between a Westinghouse streetlight and a GE one and are the only ones who notice when the lettering on interstate signage is switched over from Highway Gothic to the new Clearview font.”

Chapter 10: Overedge

This chapter covers the invention of geocaching and the antics of ‘extreme cachers,’ ‘puzzle cachers,’ ‘power cachers,’ ‘FTF junkies,’ and more. If you like geocaching, you should find this chapter extremely entertaining.

“But some geocachers are more obsessive and their quarries are more elaborate. ‘Extreme cachers,’ for example, literally risk life and limb for no other reward than an elusive ‘smiley’ — the happy-face icon that signifies a successful find on Geocaching.com. They’re not going to waste time on any cache that’s not hidden over a cliff or in an abandoned mine shaft, up a forty-foot oak tree or at the bottom of the Great Salk Lake.”

Chapter 11: Frontier

Before wrapping up Jennings considers new mapping technologies and the future of the printed map.

“But we live in a strange, shifting time for maps. The sudden onslaught of digital cartography and location-based technologies has changed, for the first time in centuries, our fundamental idea of what a map looks like.”

Chapter 12: Relief

Jennings concludes the book with his experience with the Degree Confluence Project and his hope that his kids have inherited or picked up his love of maps

“I’m convinced — and relieved — that, as a maphead, I’m not the lonely oddity I always thought I was. But this is even better news for the world at large: people still like maps! Despite the media fear-mongering, our kids still like maps. If they’re failing geography tests en masse, it’s only because we’re letting them down. We’re not teaching geography or spatial literacy the right way or giving them a long enough leash to explore their environments on their own. We’re inadvertently convincing them in a million little ways that maps are old-fashioned and dull and that there’s something a little weird about looking at them for fun.”

What about you? Do you think “there’s something a little weird about looking at [maps] for fun” or would you call yourself a “maphead”?

(P.S. If you enjoyed the quotations from Maphead, you might want to follow Ken Jennings on Twitter.)

5 thoughts on “Overview: Maphead by Ken Jennings

  1. Emily Miller says:

    I forgot that Ken Jennings is the Jeopardy whiz! I knew his name sounded so familiar. I have pretty poor geography, so just reading your quotes put me to shame and made me wish I knew more. Did he ever say anything about distorted maps (e.g. when the United States is made to look disproportionately huge?! This is a huge pet peeve of mine.)?

    1. M.E. Bond
      M.E. Bond says:

      He did mention distortion. He also included a map where south was at the top, which was really strange… but why should Australia always be at the bottom? 🙂

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