Lately reading: Ken Jennings on Maps

 Time to catch up on some of my recent reading!

::  Maphead by Ken Jennings is about maps and the people who like maps. More than that, it’s about people who love maps. Some people love maps so much they end up seeming a bit odd, but that’s fine! And who better to write about such strange people, committed to esoteric knowledge, than Ken Jennings, trivia champion extraordinaire?

Maphead, Ken Jennings

It’s safe to say that Jennings’s authorial career would not have taken flight had he not put together that wonderful winning streak on Jeopardy! back in the Aughts, but now that he’s writing, I hope he keeps doing it for a long, long time. He seems to be a cheerier version of Bill Bryson, able to write engagingly about topics that don’t often get written about (I love Bryson, but his work often has something of a dark tinge to it), and in this book especially Jennings is able to write both about maps and the entire subculture that has sprung up about maps.

Along the way in Maphead, Jennings visits the London Map Fair, an event I never knew existed. I’ve read a lot about book collectors, though, and this little world intersects that of people who seek out First Folios very neatly. I also learned about things like road geeks, who learn about specific odd details you’ll find on America’s roadways if you look closely (like a traffic light in Syracuse where the green light is on top of the fixture!) and who nurse grudges against people like a Pennsylvania Congressman who used his power to insist that a new section of Interstate Highway in that state be numbered I-99, even though that number is in violation of federal highway numbering guidelines.

Jennings visits the map collection at the Library of Congress, relating stories of how international incidents have actually been settled by other countries referring to maps in the LoC’s collection, and he writes about the National Geography Bee, which is exactly what it sounds like: an event like a spelling bee, where the goal is not to answer questions like “How do you spell chiaroscurist?” but rather questions like “What is the local name given to the katabatic winds in southern France that can cause damage to crops in the Rhone Valley?” (The answer is “mistral”. No, I don’t know what any of that means, and I am taking Jennings at his word here.)

My favorite chapter, though, as a writer of fantastic tales myself, is the chapter on maps of places that don’t exist. Some people create elaborate maps of fictional locales as a hobby in themselves. but Jennings also discusses the role of maps in fantasy and science fiction novels, helpfully enlisting his former college roommate, bestselling fantasist Brandon Sanderson, to provide some comment. I personally get a bit antsy when I try to read an epic fantasy novel that has no map, and I’ve read a few advance copies of epic fantasies over the last few years that had blank pages where the eventual map would go. This always bugs me. Some readers are fine with no maps, but if you give me an imaginary world, I have to be able to see how its locales fit together. Jennings writes:

It’s the importance of place to the genre, not just slavish imitation of Tolkien, that explaisn why todays’ fantasy authors still make sure maps are front and center. David Eddings, one of epic fantasy’s most popular writers, went so far as to put maps on the covers of his books. (Eddings’s nation of Aloria was born the same way Stevenson created Treasure Islans: he doodled the map first, and the map inspired the adventure.) The maps are certainly functional too; many fantasy novels are episodic quests, and a map is an easy way to plot that course for a reader–it’s no accident that the word “plot” can refer to the contents of both a chart and a narrative. But Brandon’s tried hard to get away from the quest narrative in his own books, most of which take place in contained urban settings, yet he still makes sure his books have maps. His latest novel–the first volume in a projected ten-books series–is called The Way of Kings, and it includes no fewer than nine maps.

I haven’t read The Way of Kings yet (in a genre that tends to long books, Way is a doorstop of doorstops), but it does contain a lot of artistic ephemera, including maps. I never re-read Tolkien without constantly referring to his maps, and I’ve rejected owning several editions of The Lord of the Rings (primarily in mass paperback) because the maps are printed so badly as to be illegible. What I love most about Tolkien’s maps isn’t just how detailed they are (I admit to being frustrated by fantasy books that give me a giant world and yet the map is basically a blob with three or four place names on it), but also how much wider they are than the story! Just look at the map of Middle Earth as it appears in LOTR: most of the places depicted aren’t places the story ever goes! I love that. (And no, I don’t care that the geology makes no sense. It’s a world of dark lords, great wizards, elves, and magic rings. In the midst of all that, I think I can make room in my brain for the right angles formed by the mountains surrounding Mordor.)

Jennings also takes some time to explore the degree to which love of maps, and knowledge of geography itself, has been pushed out of the realm of things we expect everyone to know and into that of self-applied geekdom. We’ve all seen the results of quizzes and polls showing how few Americans can identify a given percentage of the states. Jennings writes:

There are obvious ways to explain an ongoing drop in geographic literacy. Geographers like to blame the curriculum revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, in which the clear-cut history and geography classes of grade schools were replaced by a wishy-washy amalgam called “social studies”. The adoption of social studies was the well-intentioned result of academics in a wide variety of social sciences hoping to expose kids to their pet fields: anthropology, economics, political science, and so on. But, as a side effect of the new curriculum, classes specifically devoted to geography virtually disappeared from the nation’s schools. The United States is now the only country in the developed world where a student can go from preschool to grad school without ever cracking a geography text.

I can attest to this. I remember my social studies classrooms, decorated with lots of maps…to which my teachers (and these were good teachers! I enjoyed just about all of those classes) almost never referred or made the basis of a lesson. This didn’t stop me, of course, from learning about them. In fact, the maps on the walls often became my refuge in the midst of the occasional boring lecture.

And it seems, from reading Maphead, that I am far from alone in this.

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One Response to Lately reading: Ken Jennings on Maps

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    I still have some NatGeo maps from my grandfather in a suitcase in the attic.

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