With 74 Jeopardy! wins under his belt, the most wins ever on the game show, Ken Jennings might be expected to be a dry sort. Instead he’s a goofball with a killer wit (he’s not above “your mom” jokes). Not just the Jeopardy guy, Jennings has gained celebrity status for his charismatic appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and Sesame Street. Don’t believe it? If you follow him on Twitter, the site recommends that you also follow Conan O’Brien, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin.
Jennings is the author of Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Bees and Ken Jennings’s Trivia Almanac: 8,888 Questions in 365 Days. His latest book, Maphead: Charting the Wide Weird World of Geography Wonks, is a peek into the many realms of map lovers. From antique map collecting hipsters to roadgeeks who love the highway system so much that they can tell you what fonts are used on the exit signs, map lover or not, the book is an entertaining read. Jennings, who lives outside of Seattle with his wife and two kids, is currently on tour for Maphead. While in Bellingham for an appearance on the Chuckanut Radio Hour, he took some time out for an interview with us.
You’ve said you’ve been a maphead all of your life. What inspired you to delve into the worlds of other mapheads and write a book about it? A couple years ago I was going through the junk in my parents’ garage and found a box of my stuff that I hadn’t seen since high school: comic books, mixtapes, all kinds of ’80s detritus that doesn’t exist anymore. At the bottom was this big heavy green rectangle and I thought, ‘What is this?’ It was the atlas I’d saved up for months to buy when I was a map-obsessed seven-year-old. All the memories came flooding back: falling asleep every night poring over its pages, taking it on vacation with me, the armchair safaris and sea voyages I’d had through its pages. I don’t know if these map-nerd memories had been repressed, strictly speaking, but I’d certainly been in the geography closet for many years. The whole thing fascinated me: Why had I been such a sucker for maps at an age when most kids are still reading about the Berenstain Bears? Are there others like me? I decided it was time to come out of the closet.
You mention in Mapheads that some aspects of the map collecting world are fairly clandestine. Did you find any resistance when trying to obtain information? The antique map trade and the Google PR department were the hardest nuts to crack. Collectors don’t want dealers and other collectors to know what maps they’re looking desperately for, for fear of driving up value. Sometimes they have a multimillion-dollar collection that’s not adequately insured, and they sure don’t want that known either. As for Google, they are unfailing more-information-is-good crusaders . . . unless that information involves Google itself. Luckily, Brian McClendon, the VP at Google Geo who essentially co-founded and co-invented Google Earth, was very helpful and plainspoken, sometimes to the chagrin of his publicist. At one point he told me that Google is such a mapping authority that it now sends its own representative to the U.N.’s board on place-name disputes, as if it were a nation like any other. “Am I allowed to say that? Too late now,” said McClendon cheerfully. “Uh, I don’t think we’ve ever said that before,” answered the nervous publicist with a tight, thin-lipped smile.
Has your love of maps increased or decreased? My respect for maps has skyrocketed, particularly after spending an afternoon in the bowels of the Library of Congress’s Map Division. It seemed like the librarian there could just open any drawer at random and pull out some priceless historical treasure. You could really see that maps were a kind of historical Forrest Gump, always present at the fringes of any great human accomplishment, whether that was discovering a continent or curing cholera or invading Normandy or battling poverty or landing on the moon. We never could have done any of it without maps.
You mentioned that at the National Geographic Bee, the backroom has milk and cookies and staff members telling contestants who are no longer in the running how great they did in the competition. Fess up: Is that how the backroom of Jeopardy works as well? I wish there were milk and cookies and consoling parent-surrogates backstage at Jeopardy! Instead, they just have Trebek come back and yell at you for your disappointing play. He wears a German tank commander uniform and a monocle and carries a riding crop. Wait, maybe this was just a dream I had.
Since you’re a mega-champion of Jeopardy, how much of your life is dedicated to people trying to stump you with trivia questions? This still happens from time to time. A couple years ago, there was this doorman at my hotel in St. Louis who wouldn’t let me back in the door until I named every U.S. vice president that acceded to the presidency. I forgot Gerald Ford for quite a while, which really cheered him up. I kept wondering: Is this just for me, or does this guy do this for every guest? Because if so: Awesomest hotel ever!
Any plans for another book? Scribner has bought my next book as well. It’s a trivia book with a parenting angle: You know all those things that your parents would tell you even though they had no idea if they were true or not? Like “Don’t sit too close to the TV!” or “Don’t crack your knuckles, you’ll get arthritis.” This book will prove the true ones and debunk the false ones and hopefully kids will get lied to less. Not my kids, though. I’m not letting them see the finished book until they’re eighteen and moving out.
What are you reading right now? I have the short attention span you would expect from a trivia omnivore, so I often have four or five books going at once. The current queue includes Just My Type, a wonderful survey of the world of typography; The Tragedy of Arthur, a newish novel about the discovery of a new Shakespeare play by Arthur Phillips, a fellow Jeopardy! champ and wonderful novelist; an advance copy of 1Q84, the long-awaited magnum opus of Japan’s Haruki Murakami; and cartoonist Michael Kupperman’s hilarious new “autobiography” of Mark Twain. And any atlas that catches my eye, of course.
Lindsey McGuirk began her career in books as the events coordinator for Village Books in Bellingham, WA. She took a two-year stint at Algonquin Books in North Carolina, where she learned about the publishing end of the business, but returned to her true love of bookselling at Village Books in 2009. She is now the Digital Marketing & Publishing Coordinator and handles the online marketing and working with authors to get their books printed on the store’s print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine.