Maphead by Ken Jennings

Subtitled “Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks”, Jennings takes readers on a world tour of “geogeeks” from the London Map Fair to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., from the National Geographic Bee to the computer programmers at Google Earth. Each chapter delves into a different aspect of map culture: highpointing, geocaching, road atlas affection, and developing micronations. Jennings also considers the ways in which cartography has shaped our history, suggesting that the impulse to make and read maps is as relevant today as it has ever been.

I would like to call myself a Maphead but, in reality, I am just your average geographer. Yes, I love studying and making maps. I used to spend hours at Montessori School at the age of five tracing, coloring, and studying maps, and today I spend my days creating maps on everything from South American fruit  exporting to climate change vulnerability in Alaska. However, I can honestly say that when my parents tell you I am into geography, what they mean is “she really likes looking at maps” AND “she’s oddly curious about housing construction in Soviet-era Latvia” (I even read a book about it!), which is quite contrary to Jennings’ presentation of my chosen major found on page forty-nine.

There’s a common misconception that geographers know all our state capitals and which Canadian bay sees the highest tides. Geography is actually “the ultimate interdisciplinary study, because it’s made up of every other discipline viewed spatially, through the lens of place. Language, history, biology, public health, paleontology, urban planning — there are geographers studying all these subjects…” (pg. 47). Jennings tries to correct this misconception in his book while at the same time arguing that geographers need to embrace this misconception as it is the most well-known aspect of our field. While I understand his point and certainty do not want to give up cartography, I would argue that it’s most important for me to know that Gambell, Alaska is heavily reliant upon subsistence walrus hunting than what island the Romans called Hibernia as Jennings asks in his “Are You a Maphead?” Quiz at the end of the book. Route memorization means nothing if you cannot place random factoids in context. Unless, of course, you plan to become a “Jeopardy!” champion like Jennings.

The most interesting chapter in this book was the section on Google Map. This user-friendly mapping system has completely revolutionized the field of cartography and has an effect upon international border disagreements. Nicaragua named an incorrect drawn border on Google Map as justification for its invasion of Costa Rica in 2010. Other scuffles and mistakes have forced this service to begin acting “as an actual nation-state, negotiating with governments and even sending its own representatives to meetings of the UN committee on place-names” (pg. 218). And people are concerned about privacy violations with Google StreetView!

Book Mentioned:

  • Jennings, Ken. Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. New York: Scribner, 2012. Originally published 2011. Print. 304 pgs. ISBN: 9781439167182. Source: Purchased.

The Honors Project:

I read this book for The Honors Project, my own personal challenge to read more books about economics, food, and/or geography in preparation for writing my honors thesis. My goal for this project is to learn as much as I can about these topics so I can formulate better questions and, in turn, produce a better honors thesis. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

Book Cover © Scribner. Retrieved: July 12, 2012.


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