Geography Wonks for $2,500

A Jeopardy! star explores the world of map obsessives.

Also in Slate, view Ken Jennings’ slide show on the history of “map monsters.” 

Ken Jennings

A bathroom I used to frequent many years ago featured a shower curtain printed with a colorful map of the world. As I’d lather and rinse (and occasionally repeat), I’d run my eyes over its coastlines and borders. I recall that my gaze always seemed to settle on a remote island mass, somewhere north of Russia, labeled “Franz Josef Land.” The mere sight of this splot on a steamed shower curtain somehow conjured visions of barren tundras, howling gales, and even huddled villages filled with craggy-faced Franz Josef Landers.

Maps have always possessed this eerie power to stir our fantasies. Staring at maps—envisioning oneself inside them, in three vivid dimensions—has lured many an adventurer on many a quest. Such was his fascination with maps that a 7-year-old Ken Jennings (you may know the grown-up version as “KenJen,” Jeopardy!’s all-time winning-est contestant) carefully saved up his allowance to buy the 1979 edition of the Hammond World Atlas. Little Ken would unfurl those wide pages every evening before bedtime, study them until his eyes drooped, and then tuck the tome beneath his pillow as he slept.

In Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, Jennings chronicles his lifelong cartographic obsession. His sprightly, good-natured memoir combines light introspection, rafts of geographic trivia, and admiring profiles of fellow map obsessives. Along the way, Jennings weaves in musings on the importance of maps as cultural artifacts—be they yellowed scrolls with hand-drawn sea monsters or satellite snapshots that can geolocate single blades of grass.

According to Jennings, we are living in the golden age of maps. Jennings theorizes that 20 years ago, the average person consulted a map about once a week. We’d laboriously de-accordion it, discover it failed to cover the correct neighborhood, refold it, unfold a whole different map, and so on. By contrast, the ease of modern smartphone apps makes map-checking an effortless, daily—sometimes hourly—habit for many of us.

Maps have become immeasurably more useful, mixing way-finding with real estate listings, restaurant menus, and location-targeted retail coupons. It once took years before political shifts would translate into new labels on a globe, but when Libyan rebels changed the name of Tripoli’s Green Square to Martyr’s Square the transformation appeared on Google Maps within hours. Even cartography itself is easier: Anyone with a GPS-enabled phone can chart the relative coordinates of her parking space inside the stadium mega-lot, consulting her impromptu map once the game ends.

But Maphead is not always a story about functionality. It’s often about mild dysfunctionality—disguised as hobby. An extreme need for order can sometimes lie at the heart of map obsession, and a certain species of maphead derives inner calm from his ability to name the capital of the Marshall Islands (Majuro), or the location of the Qizilqum Desert (Uzbekistan), or the name of the katabatic wind that blows across the Rhône Valley (the “mistral”). In one chapter, Jennings participates in a mail-in competition for map nerds that requires entrants to trace a route in pencil across a Rand McNally atlas. Contestants follow detailed, semi-cryptic instructions, with success hinging on flawless parsing of limited-access highways and unnumbered interchanges. It’s hardly a surprise that when Jennings reports from the annual National Geographic geography bee, he notes that a decent percentage of the school-aged contestants fall somewhere along the autism spectrum.

Jennings himself seems to have written this book in part to indulge his well-documented fetish for trivia. We learn that Canada lays claim to the world’s largest triple island—an island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island. We discover that one of the world’s only remaining examples of terra nullis (land belonging to no person or country) is Bir Tawil, a desert between Egypt and Sudan governed by a bizarre international treaty. We’re told that Mikhail Gorbachev’s port-wine forehead stain is a near-exact map of Thailand. * And who knew that the advent of Google Earth uncovered a deliberate, arboreal swastika pattern in the middle of a German forest?

To me, more interesting than the memorizers are the romanticizers. Map romantics still exist. I flatter myself that I am among them: Endless contemplation of Google Earth—mulling possible routes and itineraries, gauging distances with the program’s digital yardstick—once set me off on a voyage that didn’t end until I’d come full circle around the globe. But in general it’s harder these days to find mystery in maps. It can feel as though the era of exploration has ended. The world has been conquered from pole to pole, and at this point we have at our fingertips crystal-clear images of nearly every square foot on earth.

One response to the end of maps is to begin charting worlds that don’t exist. Elaborate, fictional maps accompany fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, becoming integral parts of the experience for fans who long to explore the mountains and valleys of an alternate reality. Video games frequently feature maps of their virtual realms, and some gamers will even pay extra for bonus map modules that lend them an edge over less map-savvy rivals. I was fascinated by a chapter in Maphead in which Jennings recounts the tale of Austin Tappan Wright, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who died in 1931, leaving behind 2,300 handwritten pages describing, and mapping, a country called Islandia that existed only in his imagination. Wright’s widow typed up the manuscript and circulated it to publishers. Islandiawas a smash hit upon its release in 1942, with a Time reviewer calling it “perhaps the most sustained and detailed daydream that has ever seen print.”

Another response is to turn geographically inward, discovering the hidden micro-wonders in long-ago mapped locales. Jennings eventually achieves relief of a sort when he finds an outlet for his map geekery in the relatively new pastime of geocaching. Geocachers hide little boxes and tins all over the world—on hilltops, at the edges of suburban parking lots, at the bottom of lakes—challenging fellow ‘cachers to locate them using supplied GPS coordinates. Inside the boxes are sign-in sheets that record for posterity the list of successful explorers.

Jennings’ delight is palpable as he describes his first geocache find, in a hidden forest glade he’d never noticed before, just a few hundred feet from his house. He soon becomes a geocaching fiend, realizing that the world is far more magical when it is suddenly filled with buried treasure. (There’s a reason geocachers refer to the uninitiated as “Muggles.”) Jennings’ enthusiasm is infectious enough that I sort of want to try geocaching myself. Perhaps there’s a virgin cache somewhere in Franz Josef Land, patiently waiting for me to venture out—after consulting a few good maps—to make my own discovery.

Correction, Sept. 19, 2011: This article originally stated that Jennings compared the stain to the map of the Philippines, as he did in the uncorrected galley of his book. In the final version of the book, Jennings changed the comparison to Thailand. (Return to the corrected sentence.)