Reviewed: Maphead, by Ken Jennings

On page 113 of his 2011 book Maphead, Ken Jennings casually mentions that he and Brandon Sanderson were roommates in college.

Woah, woah, woah.  Back the fun bus up.  Did that just say what I think it did?  The guy who won 74 consecutive games of Jeopardy! and the guy who finished writing Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series shared a living space?  Dude, this dorm room is holy ground.  It should be consecrated as a nerd shrine.  All the geek faithful must be required to make a pilgrimage to worship there.

And this isn’t even the best part of Maphead, a book where Jennings channels his childhood love of maps into an exhaustive exploration of all things geographical in our world.

Jennings is just as creative in his field research here as he was in Brainiac, and he has a genuine gift for telling stories.  The only thing about his writing that gets on my nerves is that he lays on his dorky humor so thickly that it can get a little obnoxious (don’t worry, Ken–my students feel the same way about me).

But that range of material and those quirky stories make his book terrifically engaging.  To give you the flavor, I simply have to quote two stories in full:

In 2000, the Library of Congress was contacted by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which sounds like a made-up group from 24 or Alias but is actually the mapping arm of the Department of Defense.  The NGA had 360,000 map sheets sitting in a vault in Arizona that it wanted to get rid of, so Hebert sent a staffer down to take a look.  It turned out to be a gold mine: 40 percent of the maps were new, so they were brought back to the library for filing.  Among the stuff the NGA had relegated to its yard sale: 1:50,000 coverage of Afghanistan (that’s amazing detail, a little over an inch to a mile) that no one thought they’d need anymore.  But after September 11, 2001, says Hebert, it didn’t take long before the Defense Department was knocking at his door, wondering if maybe the Library of Congress didn’t have any good tactical maps of Afghanistan, please…?  America’s heroic map librarians saved the country’s bacon yet again.  (page 60)


Though the rest of us may take it for granted, the U.S. Interstate Highway System is one of the most remarkable engineering feats ever conceived.  Its origins date back to 1919, when a young Army officer named Dwight D. Eisenhower, missing his family in California, agreed to join a cross-country convoy of military vehicles heading for the West Coast.  Part of the company’s mission was to find out if these trucks and staff cars–which had just won a grueling trench war in Europe, mind you–were even capable of surviving the trip.  In 1919, driving from sea to shining sea wasn’t the leisurely five-day tour we know today.  Paved roads largely disappeared outside major American cities, so the convoy had to contend with mud, dust, ruts, unstable bridges, and even quicksand.  Their “successful” entry into San Francisco came sixty-two days after starting out (an average speed of six miles per hour!), and the convoy lost nine vehicles and and twenty-one men (to injuries–no deaths were reported, thankfully) in the 230 accidents they suffered along the way.  Eisenhower never forgot the ordeal, especially when compared to the expansive and well-maintained autobahn network he saw in Germany during the Second World War.  In 1956, as president, he signed the Interstate Highway System into law, authorizing 41,000 miles of super-highways with a combined land area the size of the state of Delaware and using enough concrete to build eighty Hoover Dams.  It was the greatest peacetime public works project in history. (pages 168-169)

The book is filled with “wow, cool” anecdotes like these.

I also appreciated the chapter on geocaching, because now I know what geocaching is.  Apparently, there’s a container under the front gate of the Bellagio here in Las Vegas.  Will I be going down there to look for it?  Yes, yes I will.

On a side note, I read this four weeks ago, in the hospital as my new daughter was born.  Reading the book inspired me, as my wife was starting labor, to try to list all 50 states.  I did pretty well, but was a few short.  My wife supplied two names I missed, and I eventually thought of a few more, but as the day wore on, I was still missing one.  Late that night, as we were all going to sleep in the hospital room, I sat bolt upright on my cot and shouted, “Connecticut!”  Then I could finally go to sleep.

Final Grade: 9/10


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s