Friday, January 21, 2011

When Geography Turns Interesting

A good place to find books on curious or unfamiliar topics is in those bargain bins placed outside the bookstore entrance. You never know. Stuck in a row of remainders snuggled up against the autobiography of Vanna White could be something like an overlooked first edition, first printing of Jonathan Franzen’s 2006 novel, The Discomfort Zone priced at $1.25. Taking the time to dig through the piles of self-help manuals and celebrity confessions, you never know what lies in wait.

Odd bits of information and obscure facts sometimes make for interesting reading, and rummaging in the sale box at Barnes & Noble one day a book on geography came to hand. It turned out to be an enjoyable read. Sounds like an unlikely reaction to a subject not always viewed as particularly fascinating, I know. The Handy Geography Answer Book is one in a series of ‘answer books’ from Invisible Ink Press, and had the subject been weather, space or sports I might have passed. At the top of page one in the geography book I learned something I didn’t know, that the word ‘geography’ is of Greek origin meaning “writing about the earth.” A few pages later we read about the shameful phenomenon called geographical illiteracy, all too common among young people everywhere, especially in the US. Surprising is the news that half of young Americans between eighteen and thirty-four in 2006 could not find the state of New York on a map, and thirty-three percent couldn’t find Louisiana.

The layout of this Matthew Rosenberg book is in an easy-to-browse style that makes it the kind of book you can pick up for a minute or two of quick reading. In less than twenty minutes of flipping around I came across these bits and pieces:

• Daniel Defoe based Robinson Crusoe on Alexander Selkirk, an English sailor who argued with a ship captain and asked to be set ashore on the island of Mas a Tierra, 400 miles west of Chile.

• Why is a book of maps called an atlas? The Greek mythological figure Atlas was forced to hold the world upon his shoulders. Because it was so often pictured on ancient books of maps, the books became known as atlases.

• Mexico City, with over 40,000 factories, 3.5 million cars and 24 million people has the worst smog in the world.

• Though scientists aren’t sure why, there is an average of 105 boys born for every 100 girls.

• Introduced in the fifteenth century, forks and spoons didn’t come into common use in Europe until the seventeenth century. Prior to that people ate with hands and a knife.

• The most common last name in the world is Chang.

• The geographical center of the lower forty-eight states is a few miles northwest of Lebanon, Kansas.

• Truth or Consequences, New Mexico is named after a popular quiz show.

• With no oil of its own, Japan must import all the oil it uses. To accommodate the country’s needs there is a constant stream of oil tankers spaced 300 miles apart bringing oil twenty-fours hours a day, 365 days a year.

• Japan’s Mount Fuji is the country’s most popular tourist site, and the world’s most visited mountain.

• Where is Timbuktu? It is near the Niger River in the African country of Mali.

• New Zealand, a major exporter of wool has sixteen sheep for every person in the country.


  1. Aaahh, yes, all too true about most younger folks not being able to find their own butt--much less where on a map they live. I still remember how much geography was stressed in the old days. It's called Cultural Literacy, folks. Something most Americans are sorely lacking in.

  2. Surprisingly I knew a few of those facts since we have visited Mexico and New Zealand. I am not surprised that most people couldn't find the state of New York on a map even though I think it was the 5th grade (probably now in the 3rd) that we leaned about all the then 48 states. Wonder whatever happened to the pride of being able to name all of the states and their capitals???? Thanks for the tid bits. Beverly

  3. P.S. Just wanted to say that I am an avid; however, I am an avid "traveler" using a road atlas. I can pick up an atlas (especially a Michelin green map) and imagine that I am traveling throughout the countryside and enjoying all of the views of the rural roads. I know it sound childish but it's fun. My husband teases me all of the time about giving my an atlas and Having me enjoy hours of traveling. But.....then it makes me want to go to those spots. Beverly

  4. "The Discomfort Zone" by Jonathan Franzen is not a novel, but a memoir.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America