Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: Maphead


From "Maphead," by Ken Jennings:

Open quote 

the way modern mapheads discover maps as children is more like the way cavemen must have discovered fire: as a flash of lightning. You see that first map, and your mind is rewired, probably forever. In my case, the Ur-map was a wooden puzzle of the fifty states"

After the jump, my review.

Grade: C-

You may remember Ken Jennings as the all-time winningest contestant on the television quiz show Jeopardy. Since then, he's lost a Jeopardy exhibition contest that pitted him against IBM's supercomputer, Watson. So, like athletes past their prime, he now writes. Maphead is his latest offering, this one covering the wide and varied world of maps and the nerds (his word) that like them.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I bought this book to satisfy my curiosity. You see, Jennings interviewed me by email in his research while writing the book. My ego wanted to see what became of the interview. Not much, it turns out. I didn't make the cut. My inputs ended up only in a footnote.

The rest of the book turns out to be not much as well. It's an easy read. It's well-intentioned. It's like a breezy Sunday drive with Charles Kuralt, with no particular destination and no hurry to get there. There are personal anecdotes, a few interviews with oddball characters, and a smorgasbord of random map facts. Nothing memorable. It's more like a Texaco foldable roadmap than a Tolkien map of the land of hobbits and dragons of Middle Earth.

It's worth comparing Maphead with another book I recently read, The Island of Lost Maps, by Miles Harvey. They overlap a bit in subject matter. Both tell the story of thieves who cut up antique atlases in libraries to extract the maps for resale to antique map collectors. Harvey focuses on this while Jennings only briefly touches on it. Both books are filled with tidbits about maps and map history.


"there’s not a single documented case of a pirate drawing a map to buried treasure. This was a trope invented by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson, not Captain Kidd and Blackbeard."

"As late as 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Tokyo Bay and returned to Washington bearing a map of Edo, with all the parts of the harbor given suspiciously un-Japanese names like 'Mississippi Bay' and 'Susquehanna Bay.'"

"When Lord Castlereagh founded the Travellers Club in London in 1819, its membership was limited to gentlemen so well traveled that they had to have been -- can you believe it? -- five hundred miles from London."

"Rand McNally teams would drive across the country, relabeling every single route by painting colored stripes and highway logos on telephone poles, like Indian scouts marking pioneer trails across the Old West."

"On the TV series Mad Men, set in the early 1960s, the protagonist, Don Draper, has a large world globe prominently displayed not just in his den at home but at the office as well. It’s a neat bit of production design, immediately signaling to viewers under thirty: See how old-timey this show is?"

"In recent National Geographic polls, one in ten American college students can’t find California or Texas on a map"

"That was the first but not the last time I became aware of the uneasy inferiority complex that geography bee people have regarding the Scripps National Spelling Bee. They tend to get upset that a contest of spelling, of all things, gets more prestige and attention than geography, a subject that -- unlike spelling -- is actually taught beyond the fifth grade, important in adult life, and unable to be easily automated by your word processor or e-mail client."

"the West’s three great challenges of our time -- Islamist terrorism, global warming, and the rise of China -- are all problems of geography."

"On the morning of June 8, 2005, Smiley was sitting with four valuable map books in the reading room of Yale’s Beinecke Library for rare books and manuscripts when a library employee found an X-Acto knife near him on the floor."

"Google fields so many complaints about the national borders on its maps that it’s started delivering localized versions to different users: an Indian user might see a border in one place while a Pakistani user sees it somewhere else, and everyone stays contented in their own little cocoons of geographic superiority."

"Brian McClendon calls Google’s Borgesian dream of a centimeter-per-pixel real-time world map 'the end of resolution,' and the phrase shocks me a little with its finality, because to me it implies the end of all mapmaking, the end of all discovery."


glbeach said...

Here's a link to (in my opinion) an interesting book regarding an interesting map.

But I must say, Simon Winchester has written a number of enjoyable books - like "The Professor and the Madman" - which I would also recommend.

Mark Steger said...

Gary, thanks for the recommendation. I've added it to my to-do list.

Mark Steger said...

Ken Jennings comments on my review here.