Friday, March 30, 2012

Find it on a Map

Maphead by Ken Jennings

Are you the sort of person who knows all your state capitals? Do you long to hit the road with an atlas and a sense of adventure? If so, you may be a geography nerd. Don’t worry. You are not alone. Ken Jennings, famous for his record-breaking winning streak on Jeopardy!, is right there with you.

As a child he studied the atlas the way other children studied Saturday morning cartoons. When he grew up he found others just like him, and Maphead is the book about their world, which is lusher and more diverse than you probably imagine. As he journeys further into the realm of geography-lovers, Jennings discovers much more than the history of physical maps.

From the belief that Americans are terrible at world geography, to a chapter set at the National Geography Bee showcasing kids who are brilliant at it, he leads us through the esoteric world of academic geography. He also visits rare map collectors, interviews people who create maps of non-existent places, examines modern digital maps, takes a stab at geo-cacheing, spends time envying extreme world travelers, and more. It's a fun book, and not just for geography wonks.

If you’d rather spend some time imagining life on a remote island, we’ve got just the book.

Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky

Just like Ken Jennings, Judith Schalansky grew up poring over an atlas. All of that information! Such a big, wide world! She told herself she would travel to these places and learn their secrets. As she grew up, however, she came to realize that there’s no way to see them all. But she could still learn some of their secrets. This book is the distillation of her knowledge of farflung places. The sub-title is "Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will."

While that may seem like a bleak title, it turns out that existence at the edges of the world often comes with a tinge of tragedy. The snapshots she provides allow readers to mentally transport themselves to these lonely places. There are islands with buried treasure, marooned sailors, and bizarre animals. You’ll read stories of volcanoes and space shuttles, unlikely rescues and unfathomable losses. You’ll read the story of the last people to hear Amelia Earhart’s voice before she disappeared forever, and of a child who discovers his made-up language is actually spoken in French Polynesia. Each of the islands has a history, even one in the Antarctic Ocean on which no one has ever set foot.

Each description is accompanied by a map of the island, to give you a better sense of place.

Says Schalansky: "It is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts, and for the atlas to be recognized as literature, for it is more than worthy of its original name: theatrum orbis terrarum, the theatre of the world."

If you don't have an atlas handy, there are all sorts of map resources online.

The Library of Congress has a digital collection of maps as part of their online American Memory exhibition.

The Smithsonian Institution keeps a collection of maps in their Galaxy of Images.

The David Rumsey Map Collection can be viewed online for free. It is a collection of maps over time.

Old Maps Online brings together many digital collections like the Rumsey collection.

Finally, The Book Drum World Map shows you the places where well-known stories take place. Look for the red pins on this interactive, crowd-sourced map to see images of and information about the place where Jay Gatsby grew up, or where The Lovely Bones took place.

Review by Danny Hanbery

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