Ken Jennings may always be known as “that guy from Jeopardy!“; that’s certainly how I tend to think of him. For those of you who don’t know, Jennings became a minor celebrity in 2004 when he won 74 straight games of the popular TV quiz show, winning just over $3 million total. I expected a brief time in the limelight for Jennings; when he wrote a book called Brainiac, about his experience in quiz shows and the broader world of trivia buffs, I was unsurprised and wrote it off as a gimmick. When he wrote a second book, Ken Jennings’s Trivia Almanac, I once again took it for an easy way to ride the short-lived wave of fame that carries intellectuals1.
But then I saw Maphead, a book about cartographers, self-proclaimed map geeks, and the strange, occluded subculture of geography and maps. My curiosity got the better of me: I gave it a try.
Let me admit some bias right away: Jennings is a Mormon, a member of a faith that prohibits drinking, smoking, gambling, and requires its members to wear special holy underwear2. In other words, members tend toward social conservatism. This doesn’t make them bad people (I know several), but knowing this, I figured that Maphead might be impeccably-researched, but a bit on dowdy and humorless side. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that not only is Jennings smart, but he has a surprising aptitude for writing. He’s not bawdy, but he’s able to be witty and occasionally irreverent in a way that surprised me.
More important, Maphead is a genuinely interesting look at maps. I’m not naturally good with maps—my natural spatial reasoning is relatively poor—but I’ve had a map bug ever since reading Nicholas Tam’s “Here Be Cartographers” last year. Here’s what Tam says about maps:
It is hard to imagine a world without maps.
Now stop—and diagram that sentence. Break its syntax apart. You can parse it in at least two valid and meaningful ways:
- It is hard | to imagine | a world without maps. The use of maps is so embedded in our daily lives, so essential to our normal functioning, that the idea of a pre-cartographic society is as alien as the thought of a pre-literate one. On top of this, our idea of what it means to be a mapped society is itself confined to our familiarized expectations of what maps are like. How did people get by without maps—or rather, without the sorts of maps we know and understand?
- It is hard | to imagine a world | without maps. Maps govern the way we think about space, and that extends to imaginary or hypothetical spaces. Without a graphic representation on paper or in our heads, our plans for things not yet built—homes, roads, electric circuits—may be cloudy and ambiguous. They may lack precision in the same way we have trouble with describing things that are outside our linguistic abilities. This is a negative definition of maps as a form of language: to be without a map is to be without language, and it impedes us from communicating ideas in the mind—to others, yes, but also to ourselves.
Jennings’ book about maps was more about map collecting and geography than strictly cartography, and the book is somewhat less insightful than Tam’s, but I admit the comparison is not a fair one. Actually, Jenning’s focus is more broad and more shallow, which is unsurprising for a published book; nonetheless, what Jennings does cover is both interesting in content and, I must admit, totally engaging. There’s fluff chapters: his attendance at a national geography bee (emceed every year by none other than Alex Trebec) tends to devolve into a half-admiring, half-horrified shock at the level of intelligence and latent misery in these fiercely competitive children (and their often-absurd parents). Others are a small slice of a specialized topic, such as Jim Sinclair’s “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre”, an annual mail-in contest that revolves around some serious atlas fu, and Jennings’ attempt to play the game with his wife and young children illustrate precisely why maps and map wonks have gotten such a bad rap over the years.
Far from being a staid defense of cartography and cartophiles, in fact, Mapheads, whether by design or accident, presents a pretty clear case for both sides. On the one hand, Jennings goes far to illustrate3 why cartography is so immensely fascinating4, and the notion of a visual recording of spatial concepts is such a beguiling, pervasive, and occasionally all-encompassing5 topic. On the other hand, the niche map collectors and geography bee contestants reinforce the notion of maps as a dry-at-best and masturbatory-at-worst pursuit, best left to brainiac quiz-show winners and their ilk.
But, and this speaks to his wisdom, Jennings finishes the book’s expository arc with the forward-looking aspects of cartography. Last is Google Maps (and its brethren, such as MapQuest, which technically pioneered the concept but was superseded by Google’s own offering and later meta-offering, Google Earth), and the hungry search for a better map database: the hunt to map everything down to a finer and finer resolution. This looks forward to the future, and is an appropriate and prescient ending to Jenning’s whole premise, which is that whether cartography is a niche fetish or a public member of the cultural zeitgeist, its importance to us remains relatively constant6. Prior to this, however, is I think the single most important chapter apart from his opening premise: Jennings dives into the wild and wooly world of Geocaching. If you don’t know what it is, I won’t belabor the point: see Wikipedia’s entry for a concise summary. The sudden and startling popularity of geocaching7 speaks not only to the relative accessibility of maps and spatial data in the era of Google Maps and GPS devices, but to the sort of pioneering spirit that still delights in navigation, exploration, and discovery.
Jennings is (most well known as) a trivia expert, not a mapmaker or a geocaching legend or explorer. Perhaps that is why his amateur enthusiasm for maps, and recently for geocaching, is so engrossing and inspiring and marvelous. It’s the very sense that a non-cartographer could become so engrossed in an internet-based, map-centric activity like geocaching that validates the entire premise of his book, namely that map-making, map-reading, and blatant cartophilia may be a niche of popular culture, but it’s nevertheless an engrossing and compelling one. All laud and honor to Jennings for creating a book that not only celebrates an underappreciated aspect of history and science, but also eliminates (in my mind) his status as a one-hit-wonder of pop culture by showing that apart from being trivial(?), he can also be an excellent chronicler as well.
- Snooki has a book, too, and has probably as much money as Jennings, despite being an absolute failure as a human being; I will bet you anything that more people recognize her name than they do that of Jennings.[↩]
- Though not, strangely, why it’s so important, indirectly lamenting the familiar but not-quite-accurate notion that all that there is to be mapped has already been mapped.[↩]
- Compass, get it? Har![↩]
- I, for one, cannot imagine life without Google Maps and/or our Garmin. I remember my father, on roadtrips, poring over a portfolio-sized atlas as though it were a block of Sanskrit and marveling that such abtrusity was at all comprehensible[↩]
- Relatively speaking, of course, as opposed to, for instance, Jersey Shore[↩]