Geography Wonks for $2,500
A Jeopardy! star explores the world of map obsessives.
Also in Slate, view Ken Jennings' slide show on the history of "map monsters."
A bathroom I used to frequent many years ago featured a shower curtain printed with a colorful map of the world. As I'd lather and rinse (and occasionally repeat), I'd run my eyes over its coastlines and borders. I recall that my gaze always seemed to settle on a remote island mass, somewhere north of Russia, labeled "Franz Josef Land." The mere sight of this splot on a steamed shower curtain somehow conjured visions of barren tundras, howling gales, and even huddled villages filled with craggy-faced Franz Josef Landers.
Maps have always possessed this eerie power to stir our fantasies. Staring at maps—envisioning oneself inside them, in three vivid dimensions—has lured many an adventurer on many a quest. Such was his fascination with maps that a 7-year-old Ken Jennings (you may know the grown-up version as "KenJen," Jeopardy!'s all-time winning-est contestant) carefully saved up his allowance to buy the 1979 edition of the Hammond World Atlas. Little Ken would unfurl those wide pages every evening before bedtime, study them until his eyes drooped, and then tuck the tome beneath his pillow as he slept.
In Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, Jennings chronicles his lifelong cartographic obsession. His sprightly, good-natured memoir combines light introspection, rafts of geographic trivia, and admiring profiles of fellow map obsessives. Along the way, Jennings weaves in musings on the importance of maps as cultural artifacts—be they yellowed scrolls with hand-drawn sea monsters or satellite snapshots that can geolocate single blades of grass.
According to Jennings, we are living in the golden age of maps. Jennings theorizes that 20 years ago, the average person consulted a map about once a week. We'd laboriously de-accordion it, discover it failed to cover the correct neighborhood, refold it, unfold a whole different map, and so on. By contrast, the ease of modern smartphone apps makes map-checking an effortless, daily—sometimes hourly—habit for many of us.
Maps have become immeasurably more useful, mixing way-finding with real estate listings, restaurant menus, and location-targeted retail coupons. It once took years before political shifts would translate into new labels on a globe, but when Libyan rebels changed the name of Tripoli's Green Square to Martyr's Square the transformation appeared on Google Maps within hours. Even cartography itself is easier: Anyone with a GPS-enabled phone can chart the relative coordinates of her parking space inside the stadium mega-lot, consulting her impromptu map once the game ends.
But Maphead is not always a story about functionality. It's often about mild dysfunctionality—disguised as hobby. An extreme need for order can sometimes lie at the heart of map obsession, and a certain species of maphead derives inner calm from his ability to name the capital of the Marshall Islands (Majuro), or the location of the Qizilqum Desert (Uzbekistan), or the name of the katabatic wind that blows across the Rhône Valley (the "mistral"). In one chapter, Jennings participates in a mail-in competition for map nerds that requires entrants to trace a route in pencil across a Rand McNally atlas. Contestants follow detailed, semi-cryptic instructions, with success hinging on flawless parsing of limited-access highways and unnumbered interchanges. It's hardly a surprise that when Jennings reports from the annual National Geographic geography bee, he notes that a decent percentage of the school-aged contestants fall somewhere along the autism spectrum.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.