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Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks

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Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks Cover

ISBN13: 9781439167182
ISBN10: 1439167184
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Excerpt

Chapter 1

ECCENTRICITY

n.: the deformation

of an elliptical map projection

My wound is geography.

--PAT CONROY

They say you're not really grown up until you've moved the last box of your stuff out of storage at your parents'. If that's true, I believe I will stay young forever, ageless and carefree as Dorian Gray, while the cardboard at my parents' house molders and fades. I know, everybody's parents' attic or basement has its share of junk, but the eight-foot-tall mountain of boxes filling one bay of my parents' garage isn't typical pack-rat clutter. It looks more like the warehouse in the last shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The last time I was home, I waded into the chaos in hopes of liberating a plastic bucket of my childhood Legos. I didn't find the Legos, much to my six-year-old son's chagrin, but I was surprised to come across a box with my name on the side, written in the neater handwriting of my teenaged self. The box was like an archaeological dig of my adolescence and childhood, starting with R.E.M. mix tapes and Spy magazines on top, moving downward through strata of Star Trek novelizations and Thor comics, and ending on the most primal bedrock of my youthful nerdiness: a copy of Hammond's Medallion World Atlas from 1979.

I wasn't expecting the Proustian thrill I experienced as I pulled the huge green book from the bottom of the box. Sunbeam-lit dust motes froze in their dance; an ethereal choir sang. At seven years old, I had saved up my allowance for months to buy this atlas, and it became my most prized possession. I remember it sometimes lived at the head of my bed at night next to my pillow, where most kids would keep a beloved security blanket or teddy bear. Flipping through its pages, I could see that my atlas had been as well loved as any favorite plush toy: the gold type on the padded cover was worn, the corners were dented, and the binding was so shot that most of South America had fallen out and been shoved back in upside down.

Today, I will still cheerfully cop to being a bit of a geography wonk. I know my state capitals--hey, I even know my Australian state capitals. The first thing I do in any hotel room is break out the tourist magazine with the crappy city map in it. My "bucket list" of secret travel ambitions isn't made up of boring places like Athens or Tahiti--I want to visit off-the-beaten-path oddities like Weirton, West Virginia (the only town in the United States that borders two different states on opposite sides) or Victoria Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut (home to the world's largest "triple island"--that is, the world's largest island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island).* But my childhood love of maps, I started to remember as I paged through the atlas, was something much more than this casual weirdness. I was consumed.

Back then, I could literally look at maps for hours. I was a fast and voracious reader, and keenly aware that a page of hot Roald Dahl or Encyclopedia Brown action would last me only thirty seconds or so. But each page of an atlas was an almost inexhaustible trove of names and shapes and places, and I relished that sense of depth, of comprehensiveness. Travelers will return to a favorite place many times and order the same dish at the same café and watch the sun set from the same vantage point. I could do the same thing as a frequent armchair traveler, enjoying the familiarity of sights I had noticed before while always being surprised by new details. Look how Ardmore, Alabama, is only a hundred feet away from its neighbor Ardmore, Louisiana--but there are 4,303 miles between Saint George, Alaska, and Saint George, South Carolina. Look at the lacelike coastline of the Musandam Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Arabian nation of Oman, an intricate fractal snowflake stretching into the Strait of Hormuz. Children love searching for tiny new details in a sea of complexity. It's the same principle that sold a bajillion Where's Waldo? books.

Mapmakers must know this--that detail, to many map lovers, is not just a means but an end. The office globe next to my desk right now is pretty compact, but it makes room for all kinds of backwater hamlets in the western United States: Cole, Kansas; Alpine, Texas; Burns, Oregon; Mott, North Dakota (population: 808, about the same as a city block or two of Manhattan's Upper East Side). Even Ajo, Arizona, makes the cut, and it's not even incorporated as a town--it's officially a CDP, or "census-designated place." What do all these spots have in common, besides the fact that no one has ever visited them without first running out of gas? First, they all have nice short names. Second, they're each the only thing for miles around. So they neatly fill up an empty spot on the globe and therefore make the product look denser with information.

But I also remember a competing instinct in my young mind: a love for the way maps could suggest adventure by hinting at the unexplored. Joseph Conrad wrote about this urge at the beginning of Heart of Darkness:

Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, "When I grow up I will go there."

When I was a "little chap," there were (and are) still a few mostly blank spaces on the map: Siberia, Antarctica, the Australian outback.* But I knew these lacunae weren't just empty because they were rugged and remote; they were empty because nobody really wanted to live there. These were the places on the Earth that, well, sort of sucked. So I never put my finger on the glaciers of Greenland and said, "I will go there!" like Conrad's Marlow. But I liked that they existed. Even on a map that showed every little Ajo, Arizona, there was still some mystery left somewhere.

And then there were those amazing place-names. My hours with maps featured lots of under-my-breath whispering: the names of African rivers ("Lualaba . . . Jumba . . . Limpopo . . . ") and Andean peaks ("Aconcagua . . . Yerupajá . . . Llullaillaco . . . ") and Texas counties ("Glasscock . . . Comanche . . . Deaf Smith . . . ") They were secret passwords to entry into other worlds--more magical, I'm sure, in many cases, than the places themselves. My first atlas listed, in tiny columns of type under each map, the populations for thousands of cities and towns, and I would pore over these lists looking for comically underpopulated places like Scotsguard, Saskatchewan (population: 3), or Hibberts Gore, Maine (population: 1).

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Average customer rating based on 2 comments:

yogahz, January 30, 2013 (view all comments by yogahz)
As a lover of maps, GIS and geography this book was like mind candy. It's not an academic book but there's enough in here to spark an interest and create further investigation. Also, he's funny.
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Katherine Stevens, December 17, 2012 (view all comments by Katherine Stevens)
Ken Jennings is a really charming writer, and he tackles the multifaceted world of geography love with humor and love. Geocaching, the National Geography Bee, the story of GPS, the antique map market--all these subjects are given their 15 minutes. Any lover of National Geographic or Sporcle capitals quiz addict will sense themselves in this book and be sad when the book is done. Love!
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Product Details

ISBN:
9781439167182
Author:
Jennings, Ken
Publisher:
Scribner Book Company
Subject:
General Social Science
Subject:
Geography-General
Subject:
geography; google maps; atlas; gps; globe; continents; jeopardy; trivia; mormon; brainiac; geocaching; google earth; cartography; highpointing; latitude; longtitude; map fair; national geographic bee; rand mcnally;
Edition Description:
Trade Paperback
Publication Date:
20120431
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Language:
English
Pages:
304
Dimensions:
9 x 6 in

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Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks Used Trade Paper
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Product details 304 pages Scribner Book Company - English 9781439167182 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Ken Jennings's Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks is an intriguing (dare I say, captivating?) look into the realm of maps, geography, and cartophiles. Jennings writes remarkably well, infusing his engrossing subject with a surprising amount of both wit and humor. Each chapter of Maphead offers insight into a different aspect of map lore, from the historical to the hypermodern. Collectors, cartographers, geocachers, fantasy authors, explorers, and geography professors are but some of the many map-connected characters Jennings sought out to include in the book. His own lifelong love affair with all things map-related obviously informed his subject a great deal, and the enthusiasm with which he conveys the book's many anecdotes is quite nearly contagious. With sometimes unbelievable facts and trivia aplenty, it is evident Maphead was well-researched and logically laid out. If you were the type of child who pored over the pages of an atlas, or drew maps of make-believe fantasy islands, or was in any way inclined to geographical pursuits, you'll revel in the liveliness of Ken Jennings's fun and informative book.

There must be something innate about maps, about this one specific way of picturing our world and our relation to it, that charms us, calls to us, won't let us look anywhere else in the room if there's a map on the wall.

"Review" by , 'I admit,— I'm a geographic klutz, constantly turned around the wrong way. But I never felt lost for a moment inside Maphead. Forget new worlds: Jennings's charming, witty account reveals a whole other universe.";
"Review" by , "Ken Jennings offers an engaging excursion through the worlds of map making, map collecting, and map use. If you enjoy maps, don't miss it."
"Review" by , "A literary gem . . . Whether you're a casual cartography ogler or a hardcore geography geek, Maphead will whisk you away into a wonderland that exists where two of the greatest horizons of the human condition, humor and curiosity, converge."
"Review" by , "It's a fun read that's not just for wonks."
"Synopsis" by , Ken Jennings takes readers on a world tour of geogeeks from the London Map Fair to the bowels of the Library of Congress, from the prepubescent geniuses at 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 rallying, even the "unreal estate" charted on the maps of fiction and fantasy. 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.

From the "Here be dragons" parchment maps of the Age of Discovery to the spinning globes of grade school to the postmodern revolution of digital maps and GPS, Maphead is filled with intriguing details, engaging anecdotes, and enlightening analysis. If you're an inveterate map lover yourself—or even if you're among the cartographically clueless who can get lost in a supermarket—let Ken Jennings be your guide to the strange world of mapheads.

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