Carl Nelson's Reviews > Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks

Maphead by Ken Jennings
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's review
May 20, 2012

really liked it
Read from May 20 to 25, 2012

"Maphead" will be thoroughly enjoyed by two groups of people: those who share Ken Jennings' love of maps and those who have an interest in the world and a general love of knowledge. It is an excellent mix of history (how did maps develop?), philosophy (why are maps so captivating?), fact (Nunavut, Canada has the honor of having the world's largest "triple island": an island on an island on an island), and speculation (why are Americans so geographically ignorant?) from a thoroughly authoritative narrator.

I clearly fall into the category of geography buffs--I could look at maps all day and I'm an avid user of Google Earth, tracking all my hikes and trips with GPS for viewing on the computer. What struck me about "Maphead" was how many different sub-cultures geography lovers have: geocaching, map collecting, trivia aficionados, travel "collectors" (number of countries, highest points in each state, etc.). Each chapter is devoted to one of these groups, how it developed, some interesting characters in that group, and where it stands today.

In addition to being a fount of trivia and a lover of geography and cartography, Ken Jennings just happens to be a pretty good writer. He has a breezy, self-deprecating style that is pleasant to read, with extensive footnotes and parenthetical asides that add to the text. Being a maphead himself, Jennings also avoids the outsider's tendency to mock or exploit the obsessive group "Hoarders"-style.

I hate to ding "Maphead" for extremly minor errors, but a trivia maven such as Ken Jennings shouldn't have made a couple obvious mistakes: Ardmore straddles the Alabama and Tennessee state lines (and Alabama doesn't even share a border with Louisiana!) and John Glenn was the first American in orbit, not the first man in orbit. Perhaps an editor in awe of Ken Jennings' reputation didn't feel the need to fact-check thoroughly!

Ultimately, I feel that an interest in geography is frequently a search to find one's own place in the grand scheme of things and discover the relation between us and the world. "Maphead" is an enlightening and entertaining read about that quest, and I'm happy to apply its name to my own obsession.
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