Review: Maphead

When I reviewed Braniac, Ken Jennings first book, I said I would be on the lookout for more.  I skipped his trivia almanac, but I devoured Maphead with great delight. As with Brainiac, I have an  interest in the topic, even if I haven’t given in to it at Jennings’s level. 

Structurally, Maphead is very much like Brainaic: Ken Jennings goes out and immerses himself deeply into a geeky sub-culture in which he was previously only mostly immersed and tells us all about it.  In this case, his topic is maps and the passtimes around them without feeling like I went to class.

Maphead‘s a little like a 1990’s P.J. O’Rourke book where P.J. would tromp off to some troubled nation, drink with the locals, and boil it all down for his readers humorously.  Except Jennings travels are most interesting in the sense that he’s covering the conceptual landscape of his topic. And there’s much less drinking.  So perhaps not a great analogy, except for the key points that both are funny and I learn things from them without feeling like I went to class.

I think Maphead is best understood as a travel book where we’re traveling around the idea of maps.  In the tradition of great travel authors, Jennings succeeds both because he has picked representative stopping points in an interesting destination, and because he is informed and good company on the journey.

He finds interesting places that readers with less time to look around might miss.  Maps are awesome, and it’s not very surprising that the Library of Congress has a boffo collection; Paris has a big tower.  What one might not expect is that there are a set of folks who hold imaginary road rallies on maps with pen and paper, or the extent to which a game show winner/author might get sucked into GeoCaching, or that there’s a National Geography Bee.  All of these are enticing to different degrees, but The National Geography Bee sounds so bad-ass that it should clearly be widely televised instead of the World Cup.  Our man Jennings found the thing, and shows it to us in all its geeky, competitive, synthesis-of-facts-and-thinking glory.  I am now aggressively hostile to the National Spelling Bee (which isn’t Jennings fault; OK it is kinda) for taking away coverage from the National Geography Bee.


Finding all this stuff and describing it in a way that recognizes its essential nerdity while highlighting its fundamental attractions (beyond its essential nerdity) is a brilliant coup.  If a book called Maphead sounds like the smallest bit of fun to you, you should read this.  You will have much more than the smallest bit of fun.

Strongly Recommended.

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