How the Jeopardy champ learned to profit from geography

Bill Richter

By A Contributor

Ken Jennings is quite forthrightly one of the “Geography Wonks” he writes about in this book. Jennings is perhaps best known for his record performance on the TV quiz program “Jeopardy” some years ago. This is a book about maps, and Jennings’ love of maps. Even more so it is a book about people – especially the people who find maps interesting, even obsessive. “I’ve become vaguely aware,” Jennings tells us, “that some fraction of humanity loves geography with a strange intensity.” (P. 11) Those people are both the subject matter and the intended audience of Maphead.

Much of the book is autobiographical, with numerous bits of interesting map trivia. Jennings tells us how he became fascinated with maps as a child, how he was intrigued with strange place names, and how he “noticed when two areas had slightly similar outlines” – such as Wisconsin and Tanzania, Lake Michigan and Sweden, and California and British Columbia. (P. 5)

Some of the “cartophiles” Jennings introduces us to are no surprise —  map-makers, map-collectors, even map thieves. Others are perhaps less expected. Chapter six deals with people who create imaginary worlds, including drawing detailed maps to describe them. Chapter seven discusses the National Geography Bee and the young teenagers who compete in it.

Chapter eight focuses on people who “collect” countries or other geographic places, like the members of the Travelers Century Club, who must have visited at least a hundred countries in order to belong. Others shape their travels by visiting all of the U.S. states, or all of the 105 counties in Kansas, or the “high points” in every state (like Mount Sunflower in western Kansas).

Chapter nine concerns “roadgeeks,” people who are obsessively interested in roads, highways, road maps, and map rallying. Map rallies are like road rallies, but without having to do actual vehicular travel.

Chapter ten concerns the practice of geocaching, a form of GPS (global positioning system)-based scavenger hunting that has exploded in popularity since it was created a little more than a decade ago. At the time of his writing this book in 2011, Jennings noted that there were more than 1.3 million active caches, or hiding places, “with more than a thousand new ones appearing every day. I had heard of geocaching prior to reading this book but had no idea how many people or places were involved. Just to see how much local activity there might be, I logged on to and found listed about twenty sites within a mile of my home, and one supposedly less than 400 feet away!

Maphead is not a book I would recommend to anyone wanting to gain any sort of systematic knowledge about maps, cartography, or geography in general. It is much too idiosyncratic and personal for that. I would recommend it to anyone interested in exploring the sometimes wacky worlds of map geeks and the rapidly changing world of maps, including GPS and Google Maps. For those of us who, like Jennings, are fascinated by maps, it is a fun read.

The writer is a retired professor of political science at Kansas State University.

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