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In MAPHEAD, Ken Jennings Asks, "Where Are We?"

This summer a friend and I took our sons and their friends--five teenaged skateboarders in all--on a zig-zagged, cross-country road trip. Our mission was to explore America’s skate parks, which we did in a giant S-shaped east-to-west route. To navigate the many miles of our overly-ambitious journey, we relied on GPS-enabled smartphones, a wi-fi hotspot, an iPad, a laptop, and Google Maps.

Maphead Across three weeks and 5,000 miles, we never got lost.

At one point, my eldest son wanted to find a concrete plaza in a housing complex in Cleveland, a so-called “skate spot” he had seen on You Tube. All he knew was the name of the complex: King Kennedy. With just those two words, he was able to search Google Maps, zoom in with the "satellite view", find the spot, then ask Google and our iPad to show us how to get there off Interstate 90. I thought it was an impressive bit of on-the-fly navigating for a 14-year-old, and in similar fashion we found off-the-interstate spots in and around Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities. Not once did we unfold a paper map. Techno-geography all the way.

I was thrilled, then, to return home and find an advance copy of the perfect post-road trip book waiting for me: Maphead, by Ken Jennings, which was chosen as one of Amazon's Best Books of the Month last month.

Jennings is the all-time Jeopardy! champ and the author of Brainiac, about the strange world of trivia. (He returned to Jeopardy! earlier this year to face IBM's Watson computer. He lost). In Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird, World of Geography Wonks--a whip-smart and entertaining book--he writes about his obsession with maps, the history of cartography, and, of particular interest to me, a fellow geography geek, the story behind Google Earth and Google Maps, which in my view has made geography cool again.

I developed an instant kinship with Jennings and his knowledge of state capitals, his appreciation for geographic arcana and "crappy" hotel room tourist maps. Like Jennings's father, my dad was a map guy, and he passed that "cartophilia" onto me. I had maps pinned to my bedroom walls and took a globe with me to college. I like knowing where things are and, more importantly, where I am. I had been a late GPS adopter, preferring the look and feel of real maps and atlases, which once littered my car. I still carry a leather case in my trunk stuffed with at least twenty maps. But, like my kids--and like Jennings--I've come to appreciate the power of all forms of digital mapping. (My GPS-enabled cellphone has a British-accented advisor, who sounds more sure of herself than her American counterpart. A friend of mine uses an Australian accent on his GPS device; a Flight of the Conchords nut, he calls her Keitha.)

Jennings frets throughout Maphead about the disappearance of geography classes, a lack of "geo-awareness" and a "sagging geographic knowledge," which he blames partly on overparenting and sedentary, screen-bound lifestyles. I share his concerns, but I've also been heartened by watching my kids navigate greater Seattle by foot and bus (usually in search of skate parks) and in their ability to co-pilot their old man drive across the country. Jennings realizes that despite Google's domination of modern digital mapping, there may always be a place for maps and atlases, a love of which he hopes to pass onto his own kids. Maphead closes nicely with a "Sea of Sharks" treasure map drawn by his son.

IMG_2807 In driving across the country with a bunch of gadgets, I similarly hope to have passed something onto my sons, maybe a broader view of the world, and a sense of their place in it.

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Watch this space for an upcoming interview with Ken.

In the meantime, visit his Amazon Author Page or visit his fun series of "Map Myths" blog posts at


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Google maps are very helpful for me as well when I'm out on a road trip. I usually rely on it more than my car's gps.

I also find google maps, bing maps as indispensable tools when we are in a road trip. I never got lost with those apps in tow.

Thanks for your comments, David and Yvonne.

It's like reading my mind! Seem to know much about this subject, and who wrote the book on it or something. I think you could do with some pictures to make the message a little, but other than that, excellent blog. An excellent read. Ill definitely be back.

Primo review - like the way you related the book to your journey. I sent an intern on a trip to southern Missouri recently and when showing her the way on a map, I realized she had no idea how to read a map because she relied solely on gps. I think she's typical of the tech dependent generation

What a beautiful post. And I'm promptly nominating you for 'Coolest Dad Ever' for volunteering to schlep FIVE teenage boys cross-country to rock skate parks. As the child of a fearful parent who thought the safest place for a girl in the big bad world was the family couch, I grew up with a love of maps and a desire to roam as soon as I was 'all grown up.' Jennings' book is a keeper.

Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is great blog. A great read. Ill definitely be back.

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