Sunday, November 4, 2018

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

A Geography Wonk Guest Blog
(See for my other work)

I am honored and a little bit intimidated to be writing for the first time on "Library" Books, a blog by my favorite librarian that I have followed since its inception. Pamela and I share some other blogs -- most notably Nueva Receta -- but I never considered a walk-on in this domain. I am, after all, only a librarian by marriage.

When I mentioned that neither the book I finished this afternoon nor its author would have been possible without maps and libraries, she graciously invited me to write about it here. I was a bit intimidated, because I had not done what I have seen her do with most of the books reviewed here -- mark every passage that mentions libraries, so that she can select the best ones for commentary. I had only the one passage near the end that led to my comment, plus whatever the book's indexer decided to tag. That, however, seems enough to make the case that this is, indeed, a "library" book.
Also see my review on Goodreads.
The book, not surprisingly, is a geography book, or more precisely a geographer's book. Because the author is famous for his mastery of trivia -- Ken Jennings holds the now long-standing record for consecutive wins on Jeopardy -- it may be assumed that this is a book about the geography of an earlier era that was focused on the rote memorization of facts.

Instead, Jennings demonstrates that he knows a lot of things because he is curious about a lot of things, and he is not satisfied to look at the world in just one way. Each of the book's eleven chapters is a personal but well-researched exploration of an entirely different aspect of maps, from map projection to antique maps to geocaching to digital globes. He approaches each facet from the point of view of his own experience, literary references, and people he has been able to interview. His Jeopardy fame has given him access to some very interesting users, makers, and curators of maps!

The library anecdote that most got my attention comes in a conversation with his grandfather, in which he asks why his grandmother -- recently deceased -- had always been so fascinated with atlases. Like Jennings himself, his grandmother Betty had enjoyed spending time not only with individual maps, but also with bound collections.

He learned that her passion for atlases had begun when she was quite young, the daughter of a single mother. She and her sister were often left with relatives while their mother worked, and they in turn often brought them to "a welcoming library with pages and pages of beautiful maps."

Throughout the book,  Jennings makes useful connections to literary figures, from Baltimorean E. Allan Poe to Lewis Carroll to my main muse J.R.R. Tolkien. Lovers of libraries are going to find plenty to love in those references, and I am certain that I have forgotten some references to libraries themselves.

As I mention above, however, the index does point to several specific library discussions. One of these is the "ginormous size" (an Elf reference the indexer could not resist) of the map collection of the Library of Congress. Boston-area readers inspired by this might consider a visit to the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library. Jennings does not mention it, but and of course it is not as large, but it is wonderfully curated, and much of it is online.

He also mentions a perennial problem librarians of all kinds face -- and one that will only get more complicated as Baby Boomers age -- what to do when patrons try to donate more maps than a collection can absorb. He is advised to give them as gifts or return them to map dealers.

Of course, no discussion of maps and libraries would be complete without a discussion of the fascinating misdeeds of E. Forbes Smiley, III, who might be a distant cousin of mine. Pamela wrote about his case in her post about The Map Thief in early 2016, right after we had read that book together and gone to the Massachusetts State Library to hear Michael Blanding's talk. Those who enjoy Maphead are sure to enjoy that work as well.