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Ken Jennings: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Ken Jennings won 74 straight games on Jeopardy! in 2004. He is the author of Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Compulsive, World of Trivia Buffs, and his new book Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks was published this fall by Scribner.

So what is it about maps, anyway? Why are so many people so fascinated by them?

Maps are an extremely elegant solution to one of the most difficult problems ever to face human beings: finding our way through a big, complicated world that we only see firsthand in tiny bits and pieces.

For a map geek, seeing a map of a territory is an empowering act, and maybe even an armchair adventure, if you can project yourself into the map and imagine yourself exploring its contours. But the same map that empowers one person can totally frustrate and confuse another—it's a matter of how good our spatial and navigational senses are. The good news is that those are senses that can quickly be improved through practice, researchers now know.

You have a funny example in the book of a particularly silly mistake caused by over-reliance on GPS navigation, but are you concerned about the increasing use of devices like this? Seems like it's probably not helping with the whole geographical ignorance thing, no?

Yes, I do worry that the convenience of GPS navigation is as much a danger as a blessing: it invites us to turn off our own internal sense of direction (and never develop map-reading skills) and blindly follow the magic voice emanating from the car dashboard. This is fine, until we're in some situation where we don't have a GPS—whether that's hiking a mountain or trying to find Sbarro's in a mall or our car in an airport parking lot—and we discover we suddenly need those navigational abilities back. I recommend that GPS owners try to cut back—leave a couple days a week when you navigate on your own, or save your GPS device for situations when you're already late or lost. I promise, it'll bulk up your hippocampus, the "sense of direction" center of your brain.

That said, tell us about your own GPS, and what it says when you deviate from your route.

We don't like the factory pre-set voice—"Jill"—on our GPS. Jill is a judgmental, American-accented woman who sighs, "Recalculating!" at every wrong turn, like we've let her down personally. We prefer "Daniel," a calm British chauffeur-type voice. My kids love Daniel and consider him part of the family. We were at a museum once looking at an exhibit on GPS satellites, and my son said, "Dad, I wish Daniel were here. He'd love this!"

"Daniel" is a bit of a rebel, though. I found a text file on our GPS device that has all the factory-set verbiage in it. I replaced "Recalculating" with "You turned the wrong way, dumb-ass. Just do what I say!" Then Daniel said that once with the kids in the car and I got in trouble with my wife and had to change it back.

Is there an answer to the severe lack of geographic knowledge today? Have you seen a particularly good educational model out there?

I'm not expert on geography curricula, but the big challenge in the U.S. seems to be that geography isn't taught extensively at any level anymore, since it was subsumed under the "social studies" umbrella during the 1970s. We're now the only country in the developed world where you can go from kindergarten all the way to your master's thesis without ever opening a geography textbook, and as a result our kids lag way behind the rest of the world on map skills and knowledge.

Probably the easiest fix is something we can do as parents, whether geography ever comes back into the schools or not. Our kids need to explore their surroundings, and that's never going to happen if they're always cocooned by technology and by helicopter parenting. We parents need to get over our (mostly irrational) fears of the dangerous outside world and let our kids do more on their own: run around and ride bikes and climb trees. They'll fall in love with geography by falling in love with their own geographies.

I thought the contrast between the National Geography Bee and the National Spelling Bee was striking. Why do you think the geography contest hasn't hit the big time yet?

The big national spelling bee is on ESPN every year, while the geography bee kids toil in PBS obscurity. This rankles the geography bee kids to no end: they're doing something big and important, they feel, learning about the whole world and not just memorizing a single unabridged dictionary. And, unlike the spelling bee kids, they've mastered a skill that can't easily be duplicated by the email client on your cell phone. But there's something wholesome and Norman Rockwell-y about spelling bees...they remind us of Mom and apple pie and the one-room schoolhouse. Maybe there's only room in America's hearts for one kind of bee, and spelling got there first.

If you could visit one of the weird/out-of-the-way places you highlight in the book, which would it be?

I was fascinated by what I read about Baarle-Hertog, a small town on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. A series of crazy treaties and land swaps between two 12th-century dukes have led to a bizarrely baroque international border there. Twenty-something tiny little bits of Belgium sit smack in the middle of Dutch territory, and many of those have, in turn, even tinier bits of the Netherlands inside them. (The smallest such parcel is well under an acre—a tiny Dutch cow pasture in the middle of a Belgian housing development.) Many houses straddle the border, so residents choose their citizenship based on which side their front door faces, and have been known to move the front door every time tax laws change. When bars close early on the Dutch side of the border, owners can move their tables over to the Belgian side and keep serving.

Have you kept up with any of the map-based activities you undertook for the book (geo-caching, for example)?

I do still geocache! Geocaching is a worldwide GPS treasure hunt played by over four million aficionados worldwide. The world is full of these little hidden prizes—over 1.5 million of them, often little Tupperware containers filled with cheap Happy Meal toys and hidden in the woods—and all you need is a hand-held GPS device and lots of free time to try and find them all. I'm a little hooked. There's something very satisfying about logging into the website and turning the "unfound cache" icon into a yellow smiley-face. Maps can talk people into all kinds of dubious propositions.

Do you have a favorite map?

I like the crazy old maps—where California is drawn as an island, or the Garden of Eden is matter-of-factly located over in Turkey somewhere, or the oceans are full of sea serpents. You can really sense the personality of the artisan who drew it, as well as the sacrifice of the explorers who risked (and in some cases gave) their own lives so that a river or a coastline could be drawn a little more accurately. Google Earth is an amazing toy, but is it as beautiful as, for example, Olaus Magnus's "Carta Marina" map of Scandinavia from the 16th century? I'm not sure that it is.

What books have you read recently that you enjoyed? What are you reading now?

I've been traveling so much lately that I've finally been able to catch up on my reading for the first time in months. Haruki Murakami's long-awaited 1Q84 is a masterpiece, and I really enjoyed Just My Type, Simon Garfield's book about typography and fonts. In the very small subcategory of "books written by former Jeopardy! champions," novelist Arthur Phillips's latest book is called The Tragedy of Arthur, and it's a very funny faux-memoir about his forger dad and what appears to be a newly discovered long-lost Shakespearean play.

Is there another books in the works? What's your next project?

I'm working on another book for Scribner: a trivia book, but with a parenting angle. The idea is to prove (or, more likely, debunk) all the little warnings that moms and dads tell their kids without having any idea if they're true or not. "Don't sit so close to the TV! Ninety percent of your body heat escapes through your head! Don't pop your knuckles or you'll get arthritis!" Are any of these true? I have no idea, but my parents used them all on me, so I pass on my ignorance to my own kids on a daily basis.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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