by Ken Jennings
I have in recent years discovered a mild passion for geography. When I go to a new place, I always check Google Maps to get a sense of the area; I have a map of my hometown of Arlington, Virginia, on my wall; and whenever I visit a city I try to get a sense of how it is laid out. Last summer, I went to Miami with some friends of mine, and I took great satisfaction in being able to figure out where we were with ease. My friends, not so much. (I mean, how hard is it to figure out? It’s a standard grid system. If you can count, you can navigate.) In my youth I could locate all the states on a map and name all their capitals, and in high school I had all 100 senators and their home states memorized. I liked being able to get places in my region- the exception being the pride I take in my ignorance of Maryland’s geography. Despite this, I took up Maphead with a slight sense of apprehension.
It’s not that I don’t respect Ken Jennings; I mean, the dude won millions of dollars by answering trivia questions for months on Jeopardy! Not easy. But trivial knowledge doesn’t make an entertaining person. I’ve seen the kids that can just rattle off pi to some amazing degree, and they’re not the kids I would have a beer with, not that I would supply alcohol to minors. But this book was not really what I expected.
As with other non-fiction books, I expected to pick up Maphead and learn some geography. It actually contains shockingly little, aside from Ken’s brief history of our collective geographic illiteracy. Rather, the best way to think of this book is as a bridge between the reader and the eponymous mapheads, or perhaps as a guidebook for the geographically inclined to find their niche. (Sorry for the geography terms.) Come to think of it, what Maphead most reminds me of are the works of Bill Bryson, travel writer extraordinaire: Jennings seems to take as much pleasure exploring the world of geography as Bryson takes in his journeys to England and Australia.
In each chapter Maphead explores a different community of interest, from antique map collectors to geography bee competitors to interstate highway enthusiasts (who knew?). Jennings seems at ease in the presence of these weirdos, while admitting that travelers who compulsively check countries off of a master list are, well, weirdos. I found myself drawn to each of these groups to some extent, and I think I might even try my hand at geocaching. For noobs, geocaching is the attempt to locate a small container of trinkets based on a set of GPS coordinates, and it seems people can get addicted really easily. But perhaps the fact that this even appeals to me marks me as a map nerd; I have no idea whether anybody else I know would even think of participating.
The main thrust of the book is that we all have a geographer within us, but that most need a push to get from the childhood love of treasure seeking to a healthy respect for where things are and how to get there. If Jennings is right, this book should be easy to read and enjoyable for just about everyone, whether they can find the U.S. on a map or not. I think he’s right, but I’m pretty sure having some interest in or knowledge of geography would make this book more accessible.
One minor quibble: why do you have to use so many footnotes, Ken? Too many interesting stories were broken up this way. Endnotes next time.
I would recommend this book to anyone who has expressed any interest whatsoever in geography, maps, or roads. Or geocaching.