In which I (eventually) review MAPHEAD, by Ken Jennings.
I work at a large format bookstore. And I love it. Some people complain that it’s soulless and corporate, and sometimes they’re right, but mostly I love the idea of this ENORMOUS STORE that is mostly books*, and that you can walk in on almost any given day and find almost any given book**.
Of course, sometimes FINDING that book is hard. We do our best, but books invariably get shelved wrong. We are, I hasten to add, somewhat hobbled by the system. Alexander McCall Smith, for example, has titles that scan both as “McCall Smith” and “Smith”. Anne McCaffrey is split almost evenly between sci-fi and fantasy. And God help you if you’re looking for Arthur Conon Doyle***. I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking just put the book in the right place. Except then it won’t be in the “right” place when you’re counting. It’s a vicious cycle.
Outside the fiction section, problems increase. Turkey and Russia scan in both Asia and Europe****. Books about the War of 1812 are in Military History and Canadian History. Even the book I am gradually working my way up to reviewing gets screwed over and consigned to the Community and Culture section, where genuinely interesting books go to die.
(This is because books in that section are not old enough to be history, not controversial enough to be poli-sci, not science-y enough to be science, not boring enough to be business, and, though thanks to Alanis Morissette I’m no longer sure is this is irony, BECAUSE THERE IS NO GEOGRAPHY SECTION.)
The fact that Ken Jennings’s MAPHEAD ended up in the Comm and Cul section is why it took me so long to find it. I mean, it’s in trade paperback now, which means it’s been out for a while. I was excited to see it, though, because I adore maps and also I have vague memories of Ken Jennings being legitimately witty on Jeopardy (he did do those interviews for a REALLY LONG TIME, after all), so I decided to give it a whirl. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, mostly because I don’t have TIME, but when I noticed that all of the chapter titles are very clever puns, I was pretty much sold.
Jennings’ doesn’t so much write about the history of maps as he write about why he loves them and how, in writing this book, he has come to understand how differently people love maps in different ways. In the “Age of the Geek”, this is not entirely news, but I have to be honest and say that I never get tired of seeing it. The reason I keep diverting into lengthy anecdotes about my own experience with maps is because Jennings does that himself in the book, and every story he tells makes the picture clearer.
I love maps because they show you how people thought, how they adapted, how they grew and how they learned to take advantage of their situation. I love big maps and small maps, but I am mostly drawn to maps of people. In this, I am very much an archaeologist. Maps of the ocean floor or Jupiter don’t really intrigue me that much, but I’ll stare forever at a map of a made-up place, because you can learn so much about the people who lived there*****. There’s a reason my proposed PhD thesis is about landscape use and defense.
I’ve lived in two very confusing towns, which I love because it means that my idea of where I am is tied to the shape of the city. I’ve lived in a grid, measured carefully and numbered in a way that makes no sense (and then renamed when we got 911 coverage). I’ve see the survey cheat lines from the air, and I’ve driven through Saskatchewan, down a straighter road than I thought was humanly possible.
I really, really enjoyed MAPHEAD, even though I keep talking about something else. It just made me THINK so much, about all my favourite maps and all my favourite stories and all the times I’ve rolled my eyes at my parents’ newfound inability to find ANYTHING without the friendly Australian who lives in their GPS telling them where it is. Jennings tells a detailed story, personal and technical and funny, and I even learned a few things along the way! It is, to put it bluntly, exactly the kind of book a person should write after they win a lot of money on Jeopardy!: brilliant, funny, full of information that is mostly useless, and oddly useful at the same time.
In closing, here is my favourite map story of the moment (probably because it involves a creature we used to comedic and heart-wrenching effect in the SANCTUARY fandom…): semi-intelligent slime mold proves efficiency of US Interstate system******.
*There is a growing “lifestyle” section, which is frustrating, but at least it’s pretty! And, most importantly, it keeps the bookstore alive, so I’m a fan.
**OH GOD, it’s funny when we sell out of something! People get SO ANNOYED! They’re all “But…you THE BOOK CABAL! You’re supposed to have EVERYTHING!” and I’m all “Trust me, you didn’t want to read Fifty Shades of Grey anyway! Read FIRE instead.”
***Two last names AND he’s split between three sections? THERE IS NO EASY WAY! Well, there is. But tell that to the guy who programs the computers and my co-workers and the “helpful” customers, all of whom keep putting THE LOST WORLD in the MYSTERY section!
****Remember how I mentioned Turkey and Russia earlier? Well it gets worse. The travel section is divided into Canadian (provinces in geographical order), American (states by region: NE, SE, NW, NE, which would be fine, except for the Mid-West), and then the other continents, divided alphabetically by country. Which, again, is fine. Because most people know that Berlin is in Germany, and therefore not shelved between Belgium and all the books about Prague. But when you get to places like The Amalfi Coast or books with more than one country/city, it gets kind of ridiculous. Also, just this morning I found out that Cyprus scans both as its own country in Europe AND as a Greek Territory…which might be fuel for an international incident of some kind.
*****Like, for example, the fact that neither Celeborn NOR Thranduil ever looked out a window.
******In hindsight, most of these footnotes could have been their own post…