'Jeopardy' champ Ken Jennings is a 'Maphead'
An interview with "Jeopardy" champ Ken Jennings, whose new book, "Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks," reveals his real obsession is not factoids and trivia, but maps. Jennings discusses his book Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Seattle Times book editor
Ken JenningsThe author of "Maphead" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
Before he became the all-time prizewinning contestant on the television game show "Jeopardy"; before he returned to "Jeopardy" to match wits with an IBM computer; even before he became a family man (wife, son, daughter and a "deeply unstable" Labrador retriever), Ken Jennings was a maphead.
Jennings was the kind of kid who couldn't part with his National Geographic maps-of-the-month — "it's almost like they're sacred," he says.
He slept with Hammond's Medallion World Atlas next to his pillow. He could name Australia's state capitals at the drop of a hat. In short, a maphead; a spatial thinker with a passion for geography and the images, data, numbers and measuring systems that form our view of the world.
Today Eastside resident Jennings loves geocaching, the hidden-stash game run with clues on GPS devices. Thanks to GPS, Google Maps and Google Earth, mapheads have whole new worlds to conquer.
Jennings has written a densely researched, thoughtful and even funny book about his obsession: "Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks" (Free Press, $25). It's everything about maps; past, present and limitless future.
"Maphead" lands in bookstores Tuesday. Over the phone, Jennings answered some questions.
Q. You've written other books ("Brainiac"). Was "Maphead" the book you were born to write?
A. I think so. I have always loved maps. For some reason the most devoted mapheads seem to be kids. I would read the atlas for pleasure. I knew it was weird. It was weird.
Q. Do you remember the first map you were drawn to?
A. I think it was a jigsaw puzzle in the shape of the states. For some reason, I was just fascinated by it — the look, the feel, the outlines of the colors. Even before you understand them, your brain is drawn to maps.
Q. You write about all kinds of maps, including early antique maps. Why are people so fascinated with them, even though a lot of the information in them is pure fantasy?
A. You can see why people are collecting those and not schoolroom wall maps from the 1960s. You can feel every stroke (made by the mapmaker), as well as the beautiful craft, the colors faded by time.
Q. "Maphead" has a chapter devoted to bizarre geographical names. What is your favorite weird place name?
A. I've always been a fan of Humptulips. I would stack that against any weird-sounding place name in the U.S. Even the position your mouth has to make to say it is almost dirty.
Q. There's an ongoing theme in "Maphead," that humans are compelled to create of their own sense of adventure — fantasy novels, games, geocaching — because the last of the continent/real world has been mapped.
A. Yes, the saddest thing is that every time you make a map, you're adventuring and exploring and starting something new. When you're done, you've drained the adventure. I am convinced that a lot of these map hobbyists I touch on in the book are trying to get that back. They're trying to be explorers.
Q. I worry that GPS and Google Maps are destroying my own kids' ability to read maps and develop a sense of direction.
A. Sure. We used to have to struggle with these big unwieldy road maps, but the fact is, that struggle made us really good at reading maps. We had to exercise those muscles. We drive instead of walk, we let our kids play and explore less, we walk around looking at our cellphones instead of where we're going. Technology is going to put more and more sheets of Mylar between ourselves and the outside world. We came here from Utah, where everything is laid out in a neat grid by Mormon pioneers. Here, every six blocks there's a hill or a lake in the way. There are three ways to get anywhere you want to go. GPS is a great tool, but I hope we don't get to where we completely depend on it.
Q. Well, bottom line: Google Maps and Google Earth — boon or bane?
A. Clearly boon, I think. Of all the new map technologies that are iffy, the way GPS can do our navigation but can also make us dumber, the one thing that really sells is Google Earth. They really sell what's exciting about maps to the lay person. Lots of today's new explorations happen on Google Earth, before they happen in reality.
There was the researcher who realized by looking at Google Earth that cows graze north and south (in 2008, a group of German scientists studying Google images of grazing cattle and deer discovered that all over the world, grazing animals stand north and south, aligned to the world's poles). Humans have been watching their cows graze for thousands of years, but we never realized how they were lining up. All it took was one German guy looking at grazing cows on Google.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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