Sunday, January 27, 2013

Maphead by Ken Jennings

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.  I want to get to the bottom of what that is.  I see it as a chance to explore one of the last remaining blank spaces" available to us amateur geographers and cartographers: the mystery of what makes our consuming map obsession tick.  I will go there.

I got a couple of sweet maps for Christmas: one of the different neighborhoods of Brooklyn (thanks, girlfriend!) and this one, that depicts all the streets in the continental United States (thanks, Mom!).  Since I have lived in Brooklyn for four and a half years and know everything there is to know about its borders already, the former serves as a home-beautifying piece of artwork.  But the latter is something I've been poring over at length, because it's so full of information.  It's fascinating how the streets drop out after a certain imaginary line down the center of the continent, and where the big white spaces are: mountain ranges, deserts, thinly populated areas like Michigan's upper peninsula.  Who knew that the area above Minneapolis becomes so sparsely populated so quickly, even moreso than the surprisingly street-covered North Dakota?

Like a lot of people, I've always found maps a source of intense fascination.  When I was in college I used to spend twice as long as I needed to in the shower because our shower curtain was a map of the world.  (I distinctly remember thinking that Cabinda was something the map company made up.)

But the people Ken Jennings profiles in Maphead make me look like a dilettante by comparison: Geography bee contestants, geocaching addicts, U.S. Highway System fanatics, etc.  There is, apparently, a huge number of people who obsess over maps in strange and idiosyncratic ways.  One of my favorite sections of the book is all about those who invent their own, fictional maps, like Austin Tappan Wright, a Pennsylvania lawyer whose massive 1000-pg encyclopedia of the fictional nation of Islandia was discovered only after his death.

Of course, what I really read the book for was the map trivia.  (In case you've forgotten, Jennings was the Jeopardy megachamp who won 74 games in a row.)  Here are some of the ones I thought were interesting:

  • The diagonal border between Saskatchewan and Manitoba isn't really diagonal, but actually made up of vertical north-south lines punctuated by horizontal steps.
  • There's a tiny region between Egypt and Sudan not claimed by either country, making it one of the few such places left in the world.
  • Dwight Eisenhower was inspired to create the US Highway System when, in 1919, he took part in a military convoy across the continental U.S. that took sixty-two days and involved 230 accidents and nine lost vehicles.

Taken as a whole, Maphead is a study not only in fringe obsessives but modern map culture, why and how maps continue to matter in the 21st century.  One chapter, "Frontier" (each one is named cutesily after a cartographic term), is a fascinating study of Google's map division.  Did you know that in 2008, German scientists using Google Earth discovered that livestock graze north to south, aligned to the poles of the Earth?  That's crazy.

There's a quiz in the back--I scored a 22/40, "cartographically clever," but pretty far from stellar.  So I guess I'm not really the map buff that I thought I was.  I even missed the question "What African country officially administers the enclave of Cabinda?"  But Jennings has a light, breezy style that really makes the book appealing and accessible--even to map dilettantes like me.


billy said...

fun fact: you can clearly see the okefenokee swamp in south georgia on that map of roads in america

Christopher said...

I was wondering what that big hole was. It's huge.