Thursday, December 8, 2011

book review: Maphead by Ken Jennings

The backstory: I'm a huge fan of Jeopardy! (yes, I DVR it daily), and as Ken Jennings still holds the longest winning streak ever (74 games), so I am intellectually enamored by him. I also have an odd fascination with maps (and globes), so when I first heard about this book, it was right up my alley, even though I rarely read non-fiction.

The basics: Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks is part memoir, part narrative nonfiction and part geographic trivia.

My thoughts: When I started reading Maphead, I wasn't quite sure what I would get. I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of Jennings' writing. I'd stop short of calling him a wordsmith, but the narrative had a nice flow, which is impressive when imparting so many details about geography. The librarian and professor in me was pleasantly surprised to see passages contemplating the state of geography in our education:
"At some point isn’t this news only is the kids suddenly start doing well on map quizzes? Part of the blame can be chalked up to the tendency, in both academia and the media, to attract readers to unsurprising developments by breathlessly overhyping them. Besides, reporters tend to be just as much “in the tank” on map knowledge as academic geographers are, since journalism is one of the few careers in which detailed global knowledge is still expected and rewarded. And because journalism and academia are somewhat insular private worlds, these stories get written by people who are genuinely surprised that college students couldn’t find Kenya or Chile on a map; in their odd bubble worlds of geographic expertise, everyone would ace that test!"
Reading these passages was especially fascinating to me as I read much of this book on the bus. I couldn't help but look around at my fellow passengers and wonder: "does she know where Chile is on the map?"

Maphead varies in seriousness. Its packed with fascinating observations, history and trivia. I never realized how much of a geography nut I am (this nuttiness does not include bodies of water for some reason. Roads, capitals and borders? Yes. Rivers and lakes: I'm mostly clueless.)

My favorite part of this book, however, was the discussion of geography as a placeholder for current events. It makes perfect sense, especially from my professional information literacy perspective. When one is aware of where countries are in relation to one another, the news both makes more sense and is more likely to stick with you. For example, when I hear a story about Libya, I know where it is on a map. This knowledge both helps me understand the story better and provides a mental marker for remembering it. I don't get bogged down on the what or where of Libya; I simply add to my knowledge of its place with this new information.

Favorite passage: "To be rooted,” wrote Simone Weil, “is perhaps the most important and the least recognized need of the human soul."

The verdict: Although this book lacks a clear linear structure and chapters often come across as similar, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I learned from it, but just as importantly I was entertained (and never bored.) I can't sum it up in one sentence, but much like Freakonomics, I'll continue to regale people at dinner parties for years with the interesting tidbits I learned in Maphead.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: September 20, 2011
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Maphead from Amazon in print or for the Kindle.

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. I'm not quite at the "DVR every day" stage, but I do watch Jeopardy often. And we were riveted to Ken's 74-game run way back when. Not long ago CSPAN broadcast him giving a talk about this book in a bookshop. He was a very good speaker, very informative and worked the group really well -- which I hadn't expected. It did pique my interest in the book.

  2. This sounds so interesting! And my husband and I DVR Jeopardy every day too!! We watch it together every day, but it's usually end up watching it later. It's a fun routine. And we usually amaze ourselves at how much we know... but I am awful with geography! I'm embarrassed at how little I know. I wonder if this book will teach me something and/or interest me in learning more about geography??

  3. I kind of have a nerd crush on Ken Jennings and would love to experience his writing. It sounds as if this was the type of book that I would love, as I love gaining all those little factoids of information to share with my friends and family. Nice review today, by the way!

  4. Wow, I didn't realize it was that Ken Jennings. Thanks for turning me onto this book!

  5. I'm a geography geek, so I'm looking forward to reading this one!


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