'Maphead': Ken Jennings on the Weird World of Geography Wonks

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Ken Jennings may be best-known as the record holder for the longest Jeopardy! winning streak in history (and one of the only two humans to ever face off against IBM's Watson supercomputer), but he's also an articulate and entertaining author. As a notorious lover of maps, I was instantly taken with his latest literary gem, Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks -- an affectionate and illuminating exploration of the charms and wonders of place. From neuroscience to pop culture to gender identity to religion, Jennings' geographic narrative interlaces nontrivial trivia with delightful personal anecdotes and, above all, a genuine love of maps as a visual sensemaking mechanism for the world.

If you never open a map until you're lost, you're missing out on all the fun.

From getting shamed by a teenager at the National Geographic Bee to getting almost-lost amidst the 4.5 million items held at the Library of Congress Map Division, Jennings looked far and wide to unravel the mystery of what makes maps sing to us.

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.

Whether you're a casual cartography ogler or a hardcore geography geek, Maphead will whisk you away into a wonderland that exists where two of the greatest horizons of the human condition, humor and curiosity, converge.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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