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BOOK REVIEW: Maphead by Ken Jennings

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography WonksMaphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

In a sad commentary TV’s popularity, you may only know Ken Jennings from his record winning streak on Jeopardy, and the books he’s written since then may have escaped your attention. But Jennings isn’t just a fast-handed font of trivia, he writes nonfiction that is approachable, intriguing, and displays a good sense of humor.

Maphead is about maps and the people who love them, and–in some cases–who build their lives around various forms of graphic depiction of our world. In 12 chapters, Jennings not only reflects upon the many forms of map and geography fetish, he also presents insight on the opposite–the often dismaying and sometimes hilarious geographic illiteracy of college students and beauty queens. Besides learning about the million dollar outlays of rare map collectors and the intense rivalry of geocache hunters, Geography Bee contestants, and Traveler’s Century Club members (only those who’ve been to 100+ countries need apply), you’ll hear about a college professor who was fired for letting fly the fact that a majority of his incoming students hadn’t the vaguest idea of the whereabouts of metropoles like London or Chicago.

This book may seem like it’s only for those geeky to an obsessive level, but it’s one intriguing work of geo-geekery. It’s certainly for the intellectually inclined, but Jennings doesn’t bludgeon the reader with his intellect. True, you’ll be introduced to terms like hypsometric maps and cartacacoethes, but never in a manner that suggests a normal person would know such arcane terms. As might be expected from a trivia master, Jennings heavily seasons his book with fascinating tidbits and factoids—particularly in the chapter of the National Geographic “geography bee.” You’ll learn how the borders work between countries that drive on opposite sides of the road (I’ve experienced this myself from Cambodia to Thailand, and that may be the only place in the world where it occurs.) You’ll learn what’s in a name, and why one like “Whorehouse Meadows” was doomed from the start. You’ll learn about why maps that are wrong are often the most prized.

But it’s not all trivia. Jennings takes on serious questions as well. For example, he reflects on the degree to which kids being prohibited from venturing out into the world because of an overblown concern about pedophilic maniacs has contributed to a geographically uninterested and incapable student body. The reader is exposed to a history in which mapmakers were adventurers—the stuff of legends. In doing so, Jennings attempts to reignite a passion for geography that is lacking in a post-frontier world. We’ve become jaded by our planetary proliferation. But the book’s excitement isn’t all in the past. One learns about vintage map thieves and the sometimes wild and wooly world of modern travel (e.g. where one should get passport stamps on a separate sheet of paper to avoid border rectal exams.)

Maybe it’s the maphead in me, but I’d recommend this book for anyone who reads nonfiction. And if you’re not sure whether you’re a maphead or not, there’s a handy quiz in the back of the book.

View all my reviews


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