Maphead, Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks

Ken Jennings, Scribners, 2011, hardcover, 276 pages, index, notes, list $25.00, Amazon approx. $15.00.

Look, I’m not going to tell you again! If you didn’t get this book for Christmas, someone slipped up. As a member of this Society you automatically qualify as one of the subject of this book. Furthermore, you are going to get some great zingers to use in showing how brilliant you are, like these:
– According to the U.S. Geographic Names Information System, what are the three most common place-names in the US? Riverside, Centerville and Fairview.
– Why do British world maps cover 420 degrees rather than 360? So pink Australia and New Zealand show up on both sides. (Remember the sun never sets…)
– Ortelius was the first to propose the theory of continental drift, based on South America and Africa seeming to fit together. Others got the credit because Ortelius’ 1596 note wasn’t noticed until 1994!
And those tidbits are all from the first few chapters!!

OK, so if you’ve ever watched the TV program Jeopardy! You will know that Ken Jennings was the guy who won $2.5 million several years ago. He was also one of the three brains who couldn’t beat Watson, the IBM computer. In any case, he’s exceptionally bright, and this book lets us know that from childhood he has been a map lover. He tells us in very clear and often amusing prose why people like us exist and love to run our fingers over maps.

So, that’s nice, but you want to know how to win big bucks on Jeopardy! In that case, read his earlier book, Brainiac and learn how to press the button at exactly the right millisecond. It also helps to be a trivia nerd like Ken.

Far be it from me to trumpet that I touted him onto two of our members who happen to appear prominently in this book. You’ll find them and others from the map world you probably know by reputation if not in person. One of them is speaking at our January 21st meeting. We had hoped to entice this author to speak but his schedule would not permit. We’ll keep trying for a future CMS meeting.

Have you heard of geocaching? It’s a world wide game using GPS to locate caches left by other players, probably some are right in your neighborhood. Jennings explains the obsession of this map phenomenon and it’s effect. Watch out – you may also catch the fever.

He talks with map dealers about how the Internet has changed their lives and has the same discussion with map producers like Rand-McNally. He writes about map thieves and how they have changed our ability to access libraries’ collections.

If you think I like this book, you’re right. But don’t take my word, here’s a review by J. B. Post, retired librarian and writer about maps, as posted on MapHist:
“I’ve just finished Ken Jennings’ MAPHEAD (Scribners [Simon & Schuster], 2011). It’s a personal and rambling account of his own cartophilia and his encounters with mapdom’s neighboring realms of obsessive travel, geographic “bees,” “road geekery,” and geocaching with a side trip to the London Map Fair. When he does get to the history of cartography, it is what everyone on this list knows. Jennings tells of his love of maps and the use others have made of maps in their obsessions. If this book ever comes out in an inexpensive paperback, it’s the sort of book one suggests as a starting place. Not so much for the history of cartography, but as a peek at the wider world of mapdom in all its glory and many aspects. His enthusiasm and humor come across, but many of his allusions to things in popular culture may become incomprehensible in a few decades except to historians of popular culture. But this is a book for the here and now which shares one man’s excitement with maps.

Jennings was a top winner on the game show “Jeopardy.” Maybe what we need are more celebrities confessing to a liking of maps.” J. B. Post.

                                                                                                                                   Review by Bill Warren
From the Society’s December 2011 Newsletter