Friday, January 10, 2014

Maphead: a very short review

One of my holiday books was Ken Jennings's Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks.

Jennings, who achieved quite a bit of fame a decade ago, has moved on to become an author; Maphead was his third book, I believe.

Maphead instantly grabbed me, perhaps because Jennings and I could be a pair of those "separated at birth?" twins. Here Jennings is describing himself, but ends up describing me almost to a "T":

Today, I will still cheerfully cop to being a bit of a geography wonk. I know my state capitals -- hey , I even know my Australian state capitals. The first thing I do in any hotel room is break out the tourist magazine with the crappy city map in it. My "bucket list" of secret travel ambitions isn't made up of boring places like Athens or Tahiti -- I want to visit off-the-beaten-path oddities like Weirton, West Virginia (the only town in the United States that borders two different states on opposite sides) or Victoria Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut (home to the world's largest "triple island" -- that is, the world's largest island in a like on an island in a lake on an island).

Jennings is a cheerful writer, and his book flows very nicely. As with many nonfiction works, each chapter of the book is mostly self-contained, and describes some map-related topic or another:

  • The visit Jennings makes to the Map Library of the Library of Congress
  • Attending a map collector's convention, and watching the map collectors evaluate valuable maps
  • Jennings observing the finals of the National Geographic Bee
  • Jennings visiting the "Century Club," composed of travelers who have visited at least 100 countries.
  • A fun group who compete in mental "Rally Races," which have the form and structure of typical Road Rally races, but which are conducted entirely from your armchair, with an atlas in your lap. (In some ways, these rallies are considerably more challenging than the In Real Life sort; Jennings confesses that he barely scores 50% on the rally.)
  • The modern game of Geocaching, made possible by the opening up of the military's GPS satellites.

And so forth.

If these are the sorts of topics that fascinate you, you'll enjoy Maphead very much. Myself, my first full-time job in college was in basement level B, in a windowless room next door to the Map Library of the Regenstein Library, so you know where I fall on that spectrum.

I'm done with Maphead for now, but I'm surely not done with maps: I'm heading back to my Europa Universalis game to see if I can figure out whether it's better to concentrate my trade flows through Bordeaux or through Genoa; if that's not a map-related activity, what is?

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