Book Review: Maphead by Jennings

For my twenty-first installment in my ‘Thirty Days of Thankfulness‘ I am grateful for my sense of direction, my spatial awareness and love of maps and geography. This post will do double duty as it also masquerades as a book review of Ken Jennings’ recently released Maphead.

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography WonksMaphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks
by Ken Jennings

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
(actually more like 3.5 stars, but GoodReads doesn’t allow half star ratings)

A quick read, similar in format and informality to Ken’s inaugural Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs book. All twelve chapter titles included a cartographic definition together with a quote. For example, the first chapter entitled ‘Eccentricity’ with the definition ‘the deformation of an elliptical map projection’ and the Pat Conroy quote ‘My wound is geography.’

My favorite chapter falls in the center, halfway from nowhere to somewhere, Chapter 6 ‘Legend’ with a definition of ‘an explanatory list of the symbols on a map’ and the C.S. Lewis quote ‘Most of us, I suppose, have a secret country, but for most of us it is only an imaginary country.’ I did a double-take when I read on p. 113 that Brandon Sanderson and Ken Jennings were college roommates. I heartily agree with Brandon’s assertion that ‘The hallmark of epic fantasy is immersion’ and that’s why he always includes maps in his books. Brandon goes on to relate to Ken that he ‘started to look and make sure a book had a map. That was one of the measures of whether it was going to be a good book or not.” When Brandon first read The Lord of the Rings he thought, ‘Oho, he [Tolkien] knows what he’s doing. A map and an appendix!’ Ken states a few paragraphs later that ‘Fantasy readers like that abrupt drop into the deep end and the learning curve it takes to keep up’ further affirmed by Brandon’s confirmation that ‘By the end of a big epic fantasy novel, you’ll have to become an expert in this world that doesn’t exist. It’s challenging.’

Pauline Baynes' map poster of Middle-earth published in 1970 by George Allen & Unwin and Ballantine Books.

I felt affirmed and validated for years of pouring over maps of fictional non-existent realms. I once thought to recreate the map of Middle Earth as a tapestry to hang proudly in my living room or library. One of the first prints I purchased from a newly favorite epic fantasy author, Janny Wurts, was a large format (40×30 inches) map of Athera, solely because I wanted to be able to trace (without squinting or resorting to a magnifying glass and the loss of the center of the map to the no man’s land in the binding of the books) the routes of Arithon, Elaira, Dakar, Lysaer and other characters intrinsic to her Wars of Light and Shadow epic fantasy series. The first thing I did upon receiving the next Wheel of Time novel was to skim through for any new maps interspersed in the chapters and sections. Back in the mid80s, I purchased both the Atlas of the Land and the The Atlas of Pern by Karen Wynn Fonstad so I could pour over even more imaginary maps while waiting for the next Pern or Thomas Covenant novel to be published. But I digress, tangentially, from the book at hand.

In Chapter 9 ‘Transit’ (definition: ‘a piece of surveying equipment used by mapmakers: a theodolite with a reversible telescope’), Ken sparked my interest in road rallies (something I always wanted to do when my husband was a member of the local SCCA). I always excelled at those trick-question instruction test in school, so I might just try Jim Sinclair’s annual St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (a contest by mail where you travel a circuitous course across American from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Statue of Liberty entirely by maps) next year. That is if I can find a way to sign up; an Internet search came up oddly sparse.

Ken introduced me to ‘geocaching’ in Chapter 10 ‘Overedge’ (definition: ‘the portion of the map that lies outside the neatline border’), which so intrigue me that I grabbed my Nook Color and signed up at, even though I don’t even own a GPS unit (outside of the one in my dumbphone which doesn’t have any ‘free’ software associated with it to assist in finding or placing geocaches).

Overall, I enjoyed the few hours I spent geeking over cartography and geography with Ken Jennings as my tour guide. I learned a few things and I laughed out loud a couple of times. I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend, especially if cold November rain greets you on the other side of the door.

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