Geography wonk

By and large, I don’t remember learning much geography in school, although presumably I learned some. I remember learning the Canadian provinces and territories back when there were only twelve to worry about, and being praised for a neatly-coloured map of Ontario in Mrs. W’s grade six (?) social studies class; I don’t remember what we learned in grade nine geography with Mr. V, though I do remember the movies we watched (The Perfect StormEnemy of the StateFerris Bueller’s Day Off, something else that might have been Twister). But like many (perhaps most?) children I drew a lot of imaginary maps — first pirate treasure maps, mostly, and graduating to making the occasional maps for my brother’s DnD sessions — and still retain an affinity for them. I may not always be able to use them very well (see: me in any mall), but I do love looking at them.

That affinity for maps is probably the baseline common characteristic for those profiled in Ken Jennings’s book Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. (Does the name Ken Jennings sound familiar? You are likely remembering his record-setting 74-game winning streak on Jeopardy! about a dozen years ago.) But what happens to those kids who don’t set aside their passion for the atlas when they start getting older? Jennings gives us some of the answers, looking at the world of high-end antique map collecting (and dealing, and stealing); geographic “collectors” who strive to visit every country in the world, or the highest point in every American State, or degrees of confluence (points where lines of latitude and longitude meet); the history of geocaching; the passionate world of “road heads,” lovers of the US Interstate System; and the child competitors of the National Geographic Bee, among other topics. It’s a warm-hearted, funny, deeply interesting read, and I will likely be putting Jennings’s first book, Braniac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, onto my reading list in the not-too-distant future.

I don’t quite remember how I stumbled on Maphead — I think it was recommended, or at least mentioned, in Kory Stamper’s book on lexicography, Word by Word. In any case, I’m glad to have found it, not least because we seem to be raising a geography wonk of our own. Anselm loves maps. He plays Stack the States and Stack the Countries on our decrepit first-gen iPad, and can confidently map the entire world, with or without border lines (his favourite continent: South America). I have no idea if this interest will last the rest of his life, or even into the next year, but it was fun to be able to see some of the places it could take him — pun intended.

3 thoughts on “Geography wonk

    • No, that’s a good idea, though. On our last trip to the library I picked up a kids’ road atlas (US only) and we have spent some time finding the places we’ve lived or visited, where friends and relations live, and tracing the roads between them.


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