Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Maphead: Charting the Wide Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings

I love maps and atlases, and I believe maps are a great way to dress up walls. Atlases are a great diversion. Whenever I need to see where a story that I am reading took place, I turn to one of our atlases (if the book did not come with its own maps). Sadly, the world atlas often does not have enough detail. Then I'll go to the Internet seeking maps that are more focused on the obscure places that interest me. It seems to me that any place that is worth writing and reading about ought to be on a map, and I want to see it. That makes me a little bit of a maphead, but I will not pretend to be so fanatical as Ken Jennings, author of Maphead: Charting the Wide Weird World of Geography Wonks.

From early in childhood Jennings saved his allowance to buy atlases. He asked for them for birthdays and Christmas. He kept one by his bedside lamp. And he has never grown out of his map love. Luckily for him, he has been able to turn his fascination with maps, trivia, and all of the world's knowledge into a career. It helped that he won tons of money on Jeopardy, and that experience helped launch his writing career. Being a writer has allowed him to seek out mapheads around the world, many of whom he describes in Maphead.

Opportunities for mapheads have expanded greatly in the past several decades with the development of personal electronics and the introduction of global positioning services. Jennings tells about becoming one of the enthusiasts who chases geocached treasures and seeks confluences. Confluences are the exact spots where lines of longitude meet lines of latitude. With your own handheld GPS, you can find the spots where the minutes and seconds are all zeros. The difficulty is that these spots are often on the side of a cliff or (even worse) on private property.

While embracing the new technology, Jennings also rues the loss of free gas station maps and the feeling that there might no longer be blank spots in human geographic knowledge that still need exploring. Maphead is a very personal report that should entertain and enlighten many readers.

Jennings, Ken. Maphead: Charting the Wide Weird World of Geography Wonks. Scribner, 2011. 276p. ISBN 9781439167175.

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