Since my earliest days, I have been fascinated by maps, the road maps I’d peruse as we were driving around California, the maps of the Paris arrondissments and Metro routes, any map in an Atlas. There was an enormous National Geographic map of the world that wallpapered one wall in the bedroom of my youth. In addition to numerous atlases, I recently acquired a Globe that looks somewhat like this.

Ken Jennings describes a real craziness about maps in his recent book Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. In reading the book, I was hoping to find pages and pages of colorful, informative maps of places unknown, unvisited, and rich with mystery. However, there weren’t many. Instead, Jennings recounts his lifelong obsession with maps, geographical trivia, and map sub-cultures.

Apparently he has good company. “Now when I [Joseph Conrad] was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth and when I was one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there.”

Maphead consists of a dozen chapters concerning some aspect of matters geographical—the Library of Congress map collection that is the world’s largest, the world of rare map collectors, National Geographic Bee, development of spatial awareness and mapheads who invent imaginary countries.

“Islandia is a tiny kingdom at the southern tip of the Karain sub-continent, isolated from the rest of the world by the impassable Sobo Steppes and hundreds of miles of trackless ocean….Islandia through intricate and fully realized, is an entirely fictional country.”

Jennings also includes a chapter comparing the geographical knowledge of individuals in various countries. He describes a National Geographic survey of college-aged people in nine different countries, testing place-name knowledge, recent geographical changes, and map reading skills.

Do you know where Burkina Fasso is? How about its capital and the six countries that it borders?

The top scorers were Sweden, Germany and Italy where about 70% of the questions were answered correct. U.S. students averaged a “dreary” 40%--next to last (“Thank you, Mexico!”). The study was not the most rigorous but its results are similar to what investigators find in comparing American students with those in other countries in subjects like math and science.

Maphead also charts the increasing importance of GPS systems that many individuals use frequently on their cell phones and cars, as well as the extraordinary development of virtual maps by Google Earth with its rapidly growing library of aerial photographs.

“…much of the aerial imagery that Google posts, old and new, has never been seen by human eye-balls before…and sometimes there are things there at the bottom that were never know before.”

In discussing Google Earth Jennings finally gets a little bit serious in contrast to most of the other chapters that are little more than light and breezy discussions of geographical details. He suggests that unlike previous maps based on a mapmaker’s version of reality, those from Google’s virtual globe are reality. “Because its globe looks like the real place, it blurs the distinction between map and territory.”