KENJENNINGS.COMKen Jennings’ Maphead is a triumph and a rarity for me as a reader: a book about a weird subculture where I was part of the subculture! I enjoyed reading about the Scrabble nerds in Stefan Fatsis’ Word Freak but still felt a sort of academic distance from the subject. In contrast, I tore through page after page of Jennings’ treatise on cartography geeks with one thought on my mind: These are my people!
“Because it’s there” is a familiar saying to describe the strange allure of a challenging geographic obstacle, but it’s also kind of a map-obsessive thing to say. It’s difficult to put into words, but to a certain brand of maphead, the mere fact that a location or landmark is marked on a map is enough to justify Close Encounters-level devotion. And I understand the impulse completely — when I was kindergarten age, the shapes of the individual United States fascinated me at such a base level that I would draw maps of our wonderful nation just for the fun of it. It wasn’t quite to Al Franken’s standard of accuracy, but that’s just one of many reasons why I’m not a senator.
The colorful, real-life characters explored by Jennings in Maphead embody this impulse in many, many different ways, every one of them envisioning the Earth — and beyond — as a gigantic playground with a compass rose. We meet Charles Veley, a geographic “collector” who has visited all 319 world locations recognized by the international Travelers’ Century Club. Lusting for wanderlust, he went ahead and founded his own website, MostTraveledPeople.com, where readers expanded the list to a gargantuan 872. As of this writing, Veley himself stands at 827; his most impressive outing, chronicled by Jennings, involved a trip to Rockall, a 90-foot-wide island off the north coast of Great Britain. Unable to dock, he settled for hugging the side wearing a wet suit; he marked it off his list and received an “A” for innovation.
One of my aims in writing this blog is detailing the mapping of fictional journeys, whether set in the real world (The Sopranos) or imaginary ones (every fantasy novel ever). With that in mind, one of my favorite chapters in Maphead details individuals who leave the real world behind and maintain complex logs of imaginary universes. Jennings talks to Isaac Stewart, the artist who produces maps for fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson — and learn that the Southern Islands in Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire were inspired by the shape of a rust stain. “You wind up doing this seizure thing with your hand, and it doesn’t work sometimes,” Stewart says of attempting to draw a realistic coastline without the aid of a real-life inspiration.
A chapter that rings close to home covers the phenomenon of geocaching, a worldwide scavenger hunt wherein people use smartphones or GPS devices to uncover “caches” — containers ranging in size from a large can to a screw — carefully hidden from the “muggles” of the normal world. My mom is a big fan of geocaching, and I in fact once accompanied her on an FTF — a First to Find — just seconds after the cache was posted online, only to be outwitted by a fellow geocacher just seconds before we got there.
I confess that geocaching isn’t something I would do on my own — as a videogamer, it reminds me a bit too much of games that force you to collect random doodads for naught but a sense of Achievement. But I love the fact that there’s essentially a silent game going on at all times in public, all achieved through a combination of modern technology and the sheer want of the human mind to map its surroundings in any way possible. I guarantee you that there are at least a dozen caches within a one-square-mile radius of the spot you are sitting.
Maphead is legitimately one of the most inspirational books I’ve ever read, and played a huge role in getting me to move this blog from a husk into a reality. Some of Jennings’ jokes fall flat, but it’s all at the service of an enthusiasm for the material that I really hope single-handedly inspires the next wave of budding geographers.