Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks
Ken Jennings (2011, Scribner)

     You may remember Ken Jennings as the 2004 contestant who won the game show Jeopardy! 74 times in a row, a feat which permitted him to retire from computer programming and devote himself to his many and various interests. Happily for us, he’s willing to share, first with Brainiac, his book about trivia buffs, and now with an insider’s look at maps and the people who love them.

    Like most people so afflicted, his fascination started in childhood, and in a single flash: “You see that first map, and your mind is rewired, probably forever.”  Boys who get the bug trace rivers, memorize state and provincial capitals, and invent their own maps, frequently in solitude. When Jennings himself was eight, his family moved to South Korea, and he immersed himself in maps of the United States, plotting imaginary road trips over the exotic highways of Delaware.

    Maphead is about some of the ways that solitude is broken, or at least shared. The National Geographic Bee winnows middle schoolers from across the nation with a series of grueling tests and contests; the winners meet in Washington to answer questions about “Zimbabwean national parks, Dominican volcanoes, Italian car production statistics, Swazi life expectancy--nothing seems beyond their grasp.” It’s a chance for the kids to make friends with their peers and fellow geeks, people who can understand them as even their parents cannot.

    Those kids study more than they travel (though the winner earns a cruise to the Galápagos Islands, with Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, no less.) Other mapheads travel obsessively, collecting destinations: the Travelers’ Century Club, in Southern California, is restricted to people who have visited over one hundred countries. The Highpointers Club unites people trying to visit the highest points in all fifty states, whether a snowy peak, or a high spot in a cornfield. Self-described roadgeeks may drive around looking for the ghost of U.S. 99, the West Coast highway that was replaced by Interstate 5, or taking pictures of every interchange sign between Seattle and Boston on I-90.

    The recent improvement in the accuracy of the Global Positioning System made possible the sport of geocaching, which sends devotees off the beaten track in search of hidden treasures. GPS coordinates lead to, typically, a waterproof container that holds a logbook and perhaps a few trinkets for swapping. Jennings takes his six-year-old out to look in the woods across the street from their house: “A $20 billion array of sophisticated military satellites is helping me find Tupperware in the woods. Truly we are living in the future.”

    It’s a future with more computers and smart gadgets, and fewer free gas station maps, (of which a staggering eight billion were printed in the twentieth century.) But it seems likely that maps will continue their hold on the imagination. Jennings thinks he knows why: “Almost every map, whether of a shopping mall, a city, or a continent, will show us two kinds of places: places where we’ve been and places we’ve never been. The nearby and the faraway exist together in the same frame, our world undeniably connected to the new and unexpected. We can understand, at a glance, our place in the universe, our potential to go and see new things, and the way to get back home afterward.”

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