Review: Ken Jennings, “Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks”

Title: Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks
Author: Ken Jennings
Publisher: Scribner
Genre: Geography
Year: 2011
Pages: 276
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-1-4391-6717-5
Price: $25

I think that the constant study of maps is apt to disturb men’s reasoning powers,” Lord Salisbury, p. 207.

You have to wonder if Ken Jennings’s parents realized their son was a different sort of fellow when he chose to sleep with a World Atlas next to his pillow, rather than your average child’s teddy bear. As far back as he can remember he’s loved maps. While researching for his new book, Maphead, Jennings discovered he wasn’t alone. “Cartophilia” is alive and well, and Jennings hopes to spread the love: “If you never open a map until you’re lost,” he insists, “you’re missing out on all the fun” (120).

Jennings, a Mormon, achieved national fame during his record-setting winning streak on Jeopardy! in 2004. As you might expect, his trivia-saturated brain can’t resist plugging a plethora of parenthetical factoids into every page. Americans can certainly use the refresher course. A 2002 National Geographic survey placed Americans next-to-last out of nine countries in place-name knowledge (42). Then there was this little debacle, perhaps more representative of our collective state of mapmind than we’d like to think (38). It’s the sort of thing that led Alex Trebek himself to lament to Jennings: “It would be nice if Americans knew where a country was before we went to war with them” (126).

But this isn’t really a book about simply being able to successfully point to places on a map (although he includes the charming story of little Lilly Gaskin, the twenty-one-month-old who could successfully point to about 130 countries on a map, p. 122). While I expected a trivia book—perhaps even a trivial book—Jennings manages to seamlessly weave fun factoids into compelling narratives about geography lovers.

Each chapter is built around a theme containing stories of a variety of mapheads. You’ll meet John Hebert, the map division chief of the Library of Congress, curator of the largest collection of maps in the history of the human race (56). Hebert also chairs the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the group who tried to excise instances of “Nigger” from the map in 1967 by replacing it with “Negro” (though “it’s not like ‘Dead Negro Creek’ is a huge improvement” Jennings notes, p. 67). You’ll be introduced to the weird world of map collectors, including E. Forbes Smiley III, a fellow who employed an X-Acto knife at various libraries in order to accumulate close to $3 million in map profits before a librarian busted him (93-95). Then there’s Isaac Stewart, the guy who creates maps for Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy books. (Sanderson, a Utahan, was chosen to complete Robert Jordan’s popular Wheel of Time series). Stewart found that eye-balling coastlines looked too fake, so he spills some water on paper and looks at the blotch. One time he discovered a great pattern on a folding chair in a church basement (117). Then there’s Louise McGregor, an elderly member of the Travelers’ Century Club. To belong, you have to have traveled to at least 100 different countries. She prefers the most frightening places imaginable, getting itineraries by checking the State Department list of dangerous places (150). “What are you doing writing a book about geography if you’ve only been to twenty-nine countries,” the incredulous woman asks Jennings (151).

Jennings spends time with kids at the National Geography Bee (which is where Alex Trebek dissed all of us). He  talks to road geeks who notice differing fonts on various interstate road signs (“Look for the curved tail on the lowercase ‘l’!”). He talks about border disputes, gender, brain science, pop culture, politics, history, and religion. In the course of researching for the book he even became addicted to geocaching, a treasure hunting game played by GPS owners all over the world—a pastime which Jennings sees as a human attempt to re-infuse the world with treasure and mystery. (He even takes his son along, entertained at the sight of him waving a GPS “back and forth in front of him at arm’s length, like it’s Fisher-Price’s My First Dowsing Rod,” p. 193).

This rhetorical coupling of a dowsing rod with a GPS device neatly depicts Jennings’s approach to our current map culture. A drastically shifting culture, he argues. For centuries maps were created much the same, but today, he notes, “we live in a strange, shifting time for maps” (213). Many of us carry maps on our phones. We can zoom in, scroll, customize, and view actual overhead and street-view photographs. Our maps can vocally tell us where to go. Near the conclusion of the book Jennings takes us on a back-stage tour of Google Earth, where they hope to eventually provide “a centimeter-per-pixel real-time world map,” the “end of resolution” as we know it (219). Despite these developments, he hopes that paper maps never fully die (234). He also hopes to instill a little of his map love in his children, and into anyone who reads his highly-entertaining book. To the mapheads he says ‘you’re not alone,’ and to those who aren’t mapheads he says, ‘come join us’:

“Maybe it makes some of us a little smug, to be so obviously superior to the unwashed masses who couldn’t tell Equatorial Guinea from Papua New Guinea if their lives depended on it. But in my experience, most of us just want to be helpful…We’re not as important a public utility as we were in the days before Google and GPS, but we’re not going to change now. Deep down, we naively believe that everyone could fall in love with maps the way we did. They just haven’t given them a chance yet” (55).

I’m going to go buy an atlas. One made out of real paper.


  1. Anne Lazenby says:

    I’m enough of a maphead that despite being a long-time lurker, I had to comment. My favorite souvenir I’ve ever purchased is a pocket atlas from 1947 so I’m going to have to check this out. Thanks for the review.

  2. Excellent. Ken is one of the funniest guys around. This sounds great.

  3. …But can Jennings tell us how many continents there are?

  4. A Seattle bookstore hosted Ken last night, where he spoke about his book. He forced all in attendance to compete for a Ken Jennings bobblehead doll by testing our geography knowledge. Unfortunately, Ken was unable to discern that I answered most of the questions correctly first, and so should have walked off with the prize. This callous disregard for my genius was genuinely offensive, and so I refuse to buy his book.

  5. I didn’t include this in my review, but I recognized a bunch of personal ties to this book while reading it. A few examples: Jennings talks about the nightmarish navigation of Washington D.C., and having just moved to the area I could commiserate and admire. In the process of moving I purchased a GPS, so I was just getting used to the technology myself. We spent a good deal of time on the I-90 which pops up in the text. We passed near a few Centerville’s, the name of the city from which I moved. I asked my wife how common she thought that name would be. The book puts it in the top 3 of the most commonly used city names in the country. The night I started reading the book I happened to catch part of the National Geography Bee on tv, entirely by accident. Then a friend in my new ward brought up the “Wheel of Time” book series the night before the book started discussing it. And a guy at a car dealership, upon learning the name of the book I was reading in his office, went off for about ten minutes about his own maplove. All these little confluences made the book all the more interesting to me. There were more examples, but this comment is already too long.

  6. Nice link, Andrew S. As a new social studies teacher, I’d like to share a fun/sad story from today.
    As I’m grading map quizzes that cover the countries, rivers and lakes in the Northern part of Africa, I come across the following answers(gathered from several papers): U.S., Canada, Mississippi River, Great Lakes, Siberia, China, Mexico, and…the Pacific Ocean. No joke.

  7. I’ve got to read this book.

  8. If I can’t sell a copy of this book to “mapman” I need to go get a real job.

  9. I get rid of a lot of books as I periodically have to weed my library, but I have never yet been able to part with an atlas. The more out of date they grow, the more fascinating they get. Not that I could win any trivia contest, but I love to dream over them.

  10. Mommie Dearest says:

    Cartophilia. So that’s what they call it. I cannot go anywhere new without having a map along. If I haven’t planned ahead, I manage to scare one up. When I come home, the geography from my *cartophila* pops up in my dreams. Trip planning usually involves big chunks of time browsing on Google Maps. I’m a bit of a slacker in my mobile phone technology, but I’ve looked into my future and seen a smart phone just for the map access.

    I was an adult when I first travelled a lot in Mexico and I was amazed to find out that they have states! Just like us! Who knew? They are wonderful, diverse places. I’m disappointed that my American border-state public school education neglected to cover basic Mexican geography. Among other things.

    Another must have book in my cart. I have that other kind of cartophilia too.

  11. Ooo, did I mention Ken says a few naughty words in the book? Buyer beware!! We’re talking borderline between PG and PG-13 here.

  12. Now I’m trying to remember the naughty words.

    Blair and I were talking about the relative lack of Mormon-related content in the book, but there is one connection I just thought of: Lilly Gaskin, the Oprah-approved geo-prodigy linked above, is LDS. She got into maps when her uncle left on a mission for Taiwan.

  13. Aaron (#4): you’ll have to pry a Ken Jennings bobblehead out of my cold, dead fingers.

  14. I felt good about buying our current home in some measure because the previous owners had a 10′ long shelf with every UK Ordnance Survey map on it. I figured if they loved maps they were good people and probably looked after their home.

    Sounds like a great book, Ken. You should see some of BCC John Hamer’s fantasy maps.

  15. Also, Ken, have you see this controversy over the map of Greenland?

  16. When are you signing books in New York, Ken? As a lifelong cartophiliac (who knows the difference between Ghana, Guinea, Guyana and guano), I’ll be there!

  17. I’m in NYC right now doing some TV stuff, Mark B., but it all came together too late to schedule a signing, sadly. Er, you could sign up for the Singularity Summit next month…I’m signing there…

    At the start of our interview, I apologized to Blair for the lack of LDS-specific content in the book, but I just thought of one church connection. The family of Lilly Gaskin, the Oprah-approved geo-prodigy mentioned above, is Mormon. She got interested in maps when her uncle got his mission call to Taiwan.

    To be fair to HarperCollins, Greenland is pretty hard to map. There’s still no consensus on whether it’s even one island or many, due to the tricky matter of where sea level would intercept its various ups and downs were there no icecap. I guess we may find out one of these days…

  18. Steve Evans says:

    Thank goodness someone is FINALLY sticking up for HarperCollins!

  19. Out of town for a wedding that weekend, Ken. You’re gonna have to do better than that! : )

  20. @16: I may not know the difference between Ghana, Guinea and Guyana, but I do know the difference between all of those and guano.

  21. “Thank goodness someone is FINALLY sticking up for HarperCollins!”

    Harper is fine but, man, Collins. What a dick.

  22. When I was in high school I was on my school’s “Geography Bowl” team; one year we won the county championship and got a helicopter tour of Ventura County as a prize. It was awewome. I am cheap and am on the waiting list for the book at my library. They did buy a second copy when it became obvious that demand was higher than they expected. I will buy it as soon as I save up enough points on my Amazon credit card :)

    Are you coming to Utah for book signings? You should come to the Provo Library and do a signing–I think a lot of people would come to that.

  23. Mostimportantly says:

    Sleeping with a World Atlas next to your pillow? I can certainly relate. My favorite book as a kid was a coffee table book my parents had called “America from the Road”. I had it memorized cover to cover by the time i was 8. Nothing irritated me more than watching kids older than me on “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” botch the map challenge at the end, especially when it was a US map! I went on to win the Geography Bee and Knowledge Bowl in Junior High but it has been a long time since I have studied maps. I am thrilled to get a copy of this. Is the Kindle edition okay? Or will I lack pictures, maps, etc?

  24. Wow, BCC scooped Boing Boing. I’m impressed.

    btw- Ken, commenting on sites like boingboing and doing your IAMA on reddit raises your cool factor considerably. Not sure what commenting here does…

  25. It raises my cool factor, ’cause he responded to my comment about footnotes.

  26. My daughter has to write a 5 paragraph essay about how the Greenland map mistake article and the 5 themes of geography relate (partner report so she only has to do three: location, movement and I think regions). After going on a temple trip last night it was late and she was a little frustrated and didn’t get very far.
    Any 5-themes-of-geography-heads here? Help us out a little???