September 26, 2011

Review: Ken Jennings, "Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks"

Title: Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks
Author: Ken Jennings
Publisher: Scribner
Genre: Geography
Year: 2011
Pages: 276
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-1-4391-6717-5
Price: $25

 "I think that the constant study of maps is apt to disturb men's reasoning powers," Lord Salisbury, p. 207.

You have to wonder if Ken Jennings's parents realized their son was a different sort of fellow when he chose to sleep with a World Atlas next to his pillow, rather than your average child's teddy bear. As far back as he can remember he's loved maps. While researching for his new book, Maphead, Jennings discovered he wasn't alone. "Cartophilia" is alive and well, and Jennings hopes to spread the love: "If you never open a map until you're lost," he insists, "you're missing out on all the fun" (120).

Jennings, a Mormon, achieved national fame during his record-setting winning streak on Jeopardy! in 2004. As you might expect, his trivia-saturated brain can't resist plugging a plethora of parenthetical factoids into every page. Americans can certainly use the refresher course. A 2002 National Geographic survey placed Americans next-to-last out of nine countries in place-name knowledge (42). Then there was this little debacle, perhaps more representative of our collective state of mapmind than we'd like to think (38). It's the sort of thing that led Alex Trebek himself to lament to Jennings: "It would be nice if Americans knew where a country was before we went to war with them" (126).

But this isn't really a book about simply being able to successfully point to places on a map (although he includes the charming story of little Lilly Gaskin, the twenty-one-month-old who could successfully point to about 130 countries on a map, p. 122). While I expected a trivia book—perhaps even a trivial book—Jennings manages to seamlessly weave fun factoids into compelling narratives about geography lovers.

Each chapter is built around a theme containing stories of a variety of mapheads. You'll meet John Hebert, the map division chief of the Library of Congress, curator of the largest collection of maps in the history of the human race (56). Hebert also chairs the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the group who tried to excise instances of "Nigger" from the map in 1967 by replacing it with "Negro" (though "it's not like 'Dead Negro Creek' is a huge improvement" Jennings notes, p. 67). You'll be introduced to the weird world of map collectors, including E. Forbes Smiley III, a fellow who employed an X-Acto knife at various libraries in order to accumulate close to $3 million in map profits before a librarian busted him (93-95). Then there's Isaac Stewart, the guy who creates maps for Brandon Sanderson's fantasy books. (Sanderson, a Utahan, was chosen to complete Robert Jordan's popular Wheel of Time series). Stewart found that eye-balling coastlines looked too fake, so he spills some water on paper and looks at the blotch. One time he discovered a great pattern on a folding chair in a church basement (117). Then there's Louise McGregor, an elderly member of the Travelers' Century Club. To belong, you have to have traveled to at least 100 different countries. She prefers the most frightening places imaginable, getting itineraries by checking the State Department list of dangerous places (150). "What are you doing writing a book about geography if you've only been to twenty-nine countries," the incredulous woman asks Jennings (151).

Jennings spends time with kids at the National Geography Bee (which is where Alex Trebek dissed all of us). He  talks to road geeks who notice differing fonts on various interstate road signs ("Look for the curved tail on the lowercase 'l'!"). He talks about border disputes, gender, brain science, pop culture, politics, history, and religion. In the course of researching for the book he even became addicted to geocaching, a treasure hunting game played by GPS owners all over the world—a pastime which Jennings sees as a human attempt to re-infuse the world with treasure and mystery. (He even takes his son along, entertained at the sight of him waving a GPS "back and forth in front of him at arm's length, like it's Fisher-Price's My First Dowsing Rod," p. 193).

This rhetorical coupling of a dowsing rod with a GPS device neatly depicts Jennings's approach to our current map culture. A drastically shifting culture, he argues. For centuries maps were created much the same, but today, he notes, "we live in a strange, shifting time for maps" (213). Many of us carry maps on our phones. We can zoom in, scroll, customize, and view actual overhead and street-view photographs. Our maps can vocally tell us where to go. Near the conclusion of the book Jennings takes us on a back-stage tour of Google Earth, where they hope to eventually provide "a centimeter-per-pixel real-time world map," the "end of resolution" as we know it (219). Despite these developments, he hopes that paper maps never fully die (234). He also hopes to instill a little of his map love in his children, and into anyone who reads his highly-entertaining book. To the mapheads he says 'you're not alone,' and to those who aren't mapheads he says, 'come join us':

"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'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" (55).

I'm going to go buy an atlas. One made out of real paper.