I mentioned a few days ago that I hadn’t yet reviewed Ken Jennings’s book, Maphead…so here we go. Unlike either Brainiac and Because I Said So, this is not really a book for a general audience. It’s not that you have to be a map geek or a geography nerd to enjoy Maphead, but it helps.

I felt a fierce identification with this book, starting with Jennings’s description of his infatuation with maps when he was a child. I’ve been fascinated by my maps since I was…oh, I don’t know…it was before I can remember at this point…probably since I was four or five years old. This actually ties in with my two major academic interests — math and language — but that’s not the subject of this post, except as it relates to the rest of this paragraph. Part of my identification with Maphead is that I invented my own country, Ladectsbeal, when I was 11 or 12, and pursued creating its details for several years thereafter. Maps were my primary focus there, but I also explored other geographical issues, some history, a bit of language, and a lot about government and related statistics. Here is one example of a fragment of a map of Ladectsbeal that I drew when I was 13 or so:

As with every Jennings book, the writing style is captivating and friendly. It feels like a conversation, not a lecture. The subtitle, “Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks,” hints at the scope of the book: it’s not just about maps. A lot of it is about geography and about geography geeks. In particular, a lot is about geocaching and those who participate in it, including Jennings himself. Very little is about the kind of trivia that made Jennings famous for his prowess on Jeopardy, although there are enough trivia to captivate those of us who like that sort of thing.

I do have to quote a reader’s review on Amazon (Suzanne Amara):

Evidently Ken Jennings is not just very, very good at game shows, but also a very good writer! I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s full of moments where I realized that I’m not alone in some of my obsessions, and moments where I recognized traits in others I knew. For example, there’s a chapter on people who created imaginary worlds and map them — something my older son did starting at about 3. I had never realized what he was doing was part of a primal urge for many. I recently started a project to trying to visit every town and city in Massachusetts, again, not realizing that this kind of checklist traveling was an obsession of many people. I haven’t gotten into geocaching, but reading about it was extremely interesting, as was pretty much everything in this book.

I love Jennings’ writing, also. He writes with what I can only describe as a friendly tone. He doesn’t place himself above the reader — you get the feeling that despite his accomplishments, he’s a pretty down-to-earth guy, still surprised he’s become a household name. I loved hearing about his wife and children, and how they view his love of maps.

When I finished the book just now, I was thinking “well, I love maps, but I don’t think I’m a maphead”. Then I realized that my bedroom wall has 4 big maps up — close up ones of the small peninsula I grew up on, an old highway map of Maine, etc — all types of maps mentioned in the book. I think a lot of us are mapheads, and I would guess almost anyone that has any interest at all in maps will love this book.

If that describes you, read the book!


Categories: Books