Maphead by Ken Jennings – review

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s been awhile since I’ve done this, and it is most certainly not like getting back on a bicycle.  If the author sounds familiar it’s because you probably have a memory of him from a much different setting: he was the Jeopardy wunderkind who spent several months as the champion of the world’s best known trivia show.  Maphead is a memoir of sorts, journeying into Jennings’ love of geography, and into the physical incarnation of all things spatial, maps, but into our perceptions of maps and geography, and their place in the world. Their importance to how our minds work, how we work, and what we may be losing with the ubiquity of Google Maps on our iphones so quickly taking the stead of  the dogeared tome crammed into that pocket on the back of the passenger seat of our cars.

The various riffs on maps, culture, and geography are engaging and entertaining, but I found it was the side roads that stuck in my mind. For instance, there is one brief foray into stats for children abductions and how “only” 115 children are abducted by strangers every year (assuming on average and in the US, and not that there is some sort of limit imposed  by a secret board that regulates children abduction and only allows for 115 to be plucked from the wild every year).  in other words, it’s literally a one in a million chance, but it’s a fear that’s on every parent’s mind whenever you venture somewhere the least bit populated with a hectic crowd and a child’s hand clutched in yours.  It  is used as a single example of how we may be slowly weaning out our ability to think spatially, to understand and interpret our environment in a way that allows us to meaningfully navigate our world by our senses and by our intuitions rather than through an app we downloaded to our phone.

This loss isn’t without some ever more serious implications as our continued lack of exercise of the abilities required to use something like a map to literally find our way through our world may play a part in shrinking our hypothalamus and a corresponding increase in dementia rates happening at earlier ages.

Thinking back on the book, I still can’t really pull any one thing from it. It is amusing, it is entertaining, and it is sprinkled throughout with things that stick in your mind a bit before vanishing into the ether. At the same time, they do vanish, which perhaps says more about me than about the book.  What I am left with is a sense of importance of maps, and how they fit into our lives. We are living maps, in a way, a record of navigation and routes. Of the terrain we travel. A literal map of Atlanta or  Qatar are but the simplest examples of the maps we construct, and maps are but the basest symbol of the much larger field of geography. it’s worth the read.

Maphead by Ken Jennings


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