Our guest this past week on the GeekWire radio show and podcast was Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy legend and author of the new book, Maphead, which was subsequently named to Amazon’s list of the Best Books of 2011.
On the show, we explored the world of geography nerds and talked about how Jennings’ early love of maps and atlases influenced the way he amasses knowledge.
Continue reading for excerpts — including a funny Alex Trebek story.
Maphead is not just about you, but you start with this personal story of finding an atlas that you had as a kid in your parents’ basement. And you explain how you used these maps to shape your understanding of the world. How did geography and atlases shape how you think as a Jeopardy champion and just as a person?
Ken Jennings: I do tend to arrange the world by place. Everything is very locational to me. When I remember my dreams, I will often not remember the things I did or the people I met, but I totally remember the geography. Was I traveling north in that car ride with Marilyn Monroe? Stuff like that is what sticks with me. I sorta wonder, is that because I liked maps as a kid? Or did I like maps because I happen to have this weird spatial way of seeing the world. Either way, I know that for sure, maps were the first time I realized as a kid that it’s totally cool to be the authority on something — to have some avalanche of facts about something. So I think I became a trivia nerd via being a map nerd — just turning the page of the atlas and having some inexhaustible set of information, tens of thousands of town names and fiddly bits of coastlines. I still love it.
What did you learn about yourself and about the people like you, who love maps, in the process of reporting this book?
I was talking to a lot of different subcultures, whether it was computer programmers or Geographic Bee prodigies, map collectors, map librarians. I sorta wondered, do these people have anything in common, beside the fact that I’m trying to write a book about them? But it turns out they did, there seemed to be some kind of animating spirit behind the whole thing no matter what the weird geeky hobby was. These people were explorers, I realized. They were explorers born 500 years too late, born into a world with no blank spots left on the map. So they sort of have to reinvent the adventure of exploration. They can’t set foot in virgin soil anymore, but they can make old places new, whether that means hiding a geocache in a park, collecting old maps or inventing maps of fantastic worlds that don’t exist. These are all just ways of making exploration new in an age when, sadly, exploration is sort of tapped out.
I think something is lost, and something is gained, to be fair. Going down to Mountain View and talking to the Google Earth guys, you could tell these people loved what they did and loved the chance to make a map so cool that it would blow the mind of 1978 4-year-old me, looking at my Rand McNally Atlas. These guys just can’t stop adding new features — undersea topography, or they’ll layer antique maps on their maps. There’s actually a version of the Google StreetView car that goes through museums now. There’s another one that can do photography of ski slopes. These guys love what they do. Maps are definitely getting cooler. But to me there’s nothing quite like the old maps. And maybe not even the pages of the road atlases when I was a kid, but maybe older than that, the old parchments on the wall with the beautiful sea serpents … and open spaces, places that were still left to be explored. You can sort of sense when you look at these maps that a lot was sacrificed to make them. Maybe somebody’s life blood went into getting that coast line a little more accurate, you know, because it was the first time anybody had ever seen it.
One of the things you did for the book was go to the National Geographic Bee. You ran into Alex Trebek there — he hosts the competition — and you told him about the book you were writing. Do you remember what he told you about geography?
He’s a big geography booster. He does the National Geographic event every year. I don’t think it’s for whatever the check is. I think he’s a true believer in maps and that we should know more about the world, and that American kids should actually be able to find America on a map. …
It’s weird to see him, he’s not in his Perry Ellis suit, he just comes up to me in the hall with a bomber jacket and dad jeans on — which is very weird, seeing Alex out of uniform, it’s like seeing your parents naked or something, ah this is wrong. I told him I was writing a book about maps, and he said, “Oh, no, it’s not just about maps here, the new geography is much more than that, Ken.” He’s very earnest about this. (Trebek said) “It would be nice if we lived in a place where we knew about countries before we went to war with them.”
That’s Alex’s dream, for American schoolchildren to be able to find a country on a map that we’re not blowing up. Which is a pretty reasonable goal.
Listen to the full show here or directly via this MP3 file. You can get every episode of the show using this RSS feed, or subscribe in iTunes or Zune. We’ll be back this weekend with another episode on GeekWire.com and at 7 a.m. Saturday on 97.3 KIRO-FM in Seattle.