Book Review – Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings.  New York: Scribner, 2011.  289 pp., paperback.

A “maphead” is a person who, nearly always beginning in childhood, is fascinated with maps–world maps, national maps, state and county and city maps, old maps, new maps, every kind of map–, and can easily spend hour upon hour examining and re-examining every detail of a map, never seeming able to get enough of map gazing.  “My name is Doug.  I am a maphead.”  I have a map of Europe on my wall, a pile of atlases on the shelf directly behind my desk, a box of maps on another shelf of European countries and cities I have visited, and scattered atlases of the Bible, the American Civil War, church history, and more in my library.  And whenever I am on a flight over land, I opt for a window seat, in case the skies below are clear, and I have opportunity to study the geography below, trying to identify rivers, cities, lakes, whatever, and “fix” my present location.  I have even taken a road atlas of the U.S. along on a few flights, for reference purposes!

The author of this volume, the all-time “Jeopardy!” champ (more than 70 consecutive wins and more than $2 million in prize money) chronicles in a witty, anecdote-heavy narrative his own life-long obsession with maps, and in a series of chapters discusses the history of maps, the problem with projection distortion (the difficulty of presenting all or part of the surface of a sphere–the earth [or moon, for that matter] on a flat surface), the increasing precision of manual surveying and map making, all the way up to modern satellite photos and Google Earth (and issues of invasion of privacy), the annual National Geographic “geography bee” contest, a geography club that admits into membership only those who have visited at least 100 separate countries (I’ve only been to twenty), and another for people who have visited the highest point in all fifty states, or on all six inhabited continents.  Even modern map “games” (facilitated by geo-positioning satellites)–“geocaching” (locating “hidden treasure” at specific map co-ordinates) and visiting “degree confluences” (where the lines of longitude and latitude intersect, such as 38 degrees n. longitude and 97 degrees w. latitude–all purely arbitrary locations, established by the selection of the 0 degree line of longitude at Greenwich, England) are given attention.  All in all, a most entertaining and instructive read.

As I have often said, the two supporting pillars of the study of history are chronology and geography.  Every good volume of history is well-supplied with maps, of necessity.  Most Bible editions are provided with a series of maps as an appendix, and rightly so.  The person who is not fascinated with maps, and rarely or never consults them, is depriving himself of a great amount of information, really essential information.

This review was written by Doug Kutilek and originally appeared in his e-mail publication:  As I See It.  This review is used with permission.  AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at:  You can be removed from the mailing list at the same address.  Back issues sent on request.  All back issues may be accessed at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: