A Year in Reading: Reif Larsen

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Ever since its introduction a little over six (!) years ago, the iPhone and all of its portable touchscreen iterations have fundamentally altered the way we process information, interact with one another, and document our surroundings (through faux, overexposed photographs). The deceptively simple interface of finger against glass proved to be the key to unlocking an unprecedentedly intimate feedback loop between user and device. And yet I believe I am not alone when I say that such intimacy has left me straddling what feels like two warring halves of myself. On the one hand, there is the part of me that appreciates nothing more than the quiet smolder of a 600-page novel’s unfolding narrative. Such stories are slow, multivalent; they demand deep periods of our attention in order to attain a delayed payoff that ultimately resonates far beyond the pages of the book. And then there is the dopamine-addicted part of me that is constantly reaching for my iPhone to monitor a world that has essentially not changed since I last checked up on it five minutes ago. This part of me feels weirdly naked if I leave the house without that little rectangular chunk of metal and glass in my pocket.

Like many of you, I cannot help feeling that these two halves are locked in some kind of existential battle; that deep, long-form literary storytelling is incompatible not just with the 140-character lifestyle we are being to trained to embrace, but also with the very architecture of a small, handheld touchscreen. Such a device intrinsically demands to be continuously shuffled in and out of the pocket. Such a device demands—through its shape, size, and interface—enough of your attention to keep you satiated, but not enough to keep you truly engaged.

And yet, even in my moments of deepest technopocalyptic pessimism, I also know that there are many exciting opportunities to utilize the touchscreen interface as an innovative platform for telling stories. But let us be blunt: even just that antiseptic word “interface” usually spells doom for conjuring any kind of poetic experience. Print books are still far and away the best interface we’ve got. I’ve waded through enough of those clumsy, masturbatory hypertext disasters that were so en vogue in the ‘90s to know that, contrary to what Robert Coover or others might say, true interactivity is rarely a good thing when it comes to authentic literary pathos. At the end of the day, the reader wants to feel the soft hands of the writer guiding them down the path. Narrative strength arises from narrative finitude.

Several years ago, Jeff Rabb and I set about designing an iPad version of my first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Cognizant of the slippery slope offered by interactive platforms, we tried to embrace the unique opportunities that a boundless touchscreen has to offer — links, partially obscured (yet retrievable) text, birds-eye navigation maps — but then also temper these opportunities with the lessons of the bounded, curated (i.e. limited) printed page. In my mind, the goal for writers and designers should be to learn from print books and not simply emulate them on a screen, as the first generation of e-books did and continue to do (hello skeuomorphic page-turning animation????). Yet despite countless hours of careful consideration, the iPad adaption of my book was still a little bit awkward, in part because it was exactly that: an adaptation, a work designed for the page that had been exported to the tablet.

So perhaps it is fitting that one of my favorite works of this year, Device 6, is a book that was designed specifically for the touchscreen. Actually, I’m not quite sure if it’s even a book or even what a book is anymore. (Perhaps such a term is too limiting — maybe we need to develop a more sophisticated nomenclature like the Japanese in order to better describe a taxonomy of literary technologies.) Created by Simogo (Simon Flesser and Magnus Gardebäck) out of Malmö, Sweden, Device 6 is the first touchscreen literary creation that succeeds in blending the medium with its content to great and wondrous effect. Device 6 borrows from all kinds of sources, including the stutter-step pacing of those old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Books, the minimalist interactivity and wayfaring of early interactive fiction games like Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the evocative, aural landscapes of classic radio dramas, the lush graphical enigmas of the Myst games, the nested, textual interplay of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and of course, the creepy, false-naive cat’s cradle of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Yet somehow Device 6 manages to distinguish itself from all of these precursors by utilizing the very technology it is built upon — our dependency on our touchscreens — as its central conceit.

We navigate through each chapter of Device 6 by scrolling along little pathways of text and image, following our heroine Anna (a modern day Alice) as she explores a surreal island filled with automatons, looped recordings, and abandoned lighthouses. These textual pathways turn left and right, up and down, backwards and in spirals. We are asked to rotate the touchscreen around in our hands, to flick the words this way and that, and in so doing, we become complicit in the narrative; we are just as disoriented, just as searching as dear Anna. The modernist ‘60s graphics are reminiscent of Saul Bass — all clean dotted lines, Dewey Decimal labels, and translucent pastel arrowheads. Beneath it all, the impeccable sound-design perfectly undergirds your movement through the story with footsteps, door-clicks, or white-noise from an unseen radio. Like good prose, the sonic landscape suggests without demanding; it evokes without explicating. Indeed, during the whole reading/playing experience, you are taken by an unsettled feeling of urgency and descend into what feels like a finely calibrated mood, just as if you were working your way through a masterfully paced novella.

That question of verbiage — are you reading or are you playing? — seems to get at the heart of the matter. Late in the story, as your and Anna’s experience begin to converge, Anna, overtaken by deja-vu, muses about such confusion: “I know this place. I’ve been here before. No, wait. I’ve read about this place. But…how? Maybe it was a book. No…not a book. A…game?” Device 6 does break certain traditional literary conventions in that each “chapter” has a series of puzzles you must solve before you can move onto the next. For some, this may disqualify the piece from the genre of the literary and move it firmly into the domain of “video game,” but for me such a distinction is much trickier, for only occasionally do the puzzles feel superficially attached to the story. The format works because, in the end, the very process of your code-breaking becomes the story itself. This also goes for the strange interstitial questionnaires that come between chapters. Initially, they resemble some kind of quirky costumer service survey that Simogo might’ve cleverly woven into its product. But very quickly these questions go off the rails, leaving one to wonder what possible valuable information they could be providing for the game designers. And then you realize the questions are not for them but for you. Such is the nature of this creation: everything about Device 6 — including your reading/playing experience — is anticipated by the narrative framework of the book/game.

Do I want the trajectory of fiction over the next 50 years to be a slow slide from the 600-page novel to various iterations of game/story smartphone amalgamations like Device 6? Do I want some kind of interactive puzzle to become a prerequisite for any reading experience? Most decidedly, no. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Device 6 doesn’t so much feel like a shortcut as the beginning of a long, important conversation. It is that rare example of talented people crafting gorgeous, smart multimedia creations that push us to reconsider our love of mystery as well as our love of the home button. Can these two impulses exist in harmony? Read/play Device 6 and decide for yourself. Just be sure to send me a tweet afterwards.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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A Year in Reading: Reif Larsen


My favorite book of 2012 was Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Perhaps I should not even be calling it “a book” since Building Stories comes in a box and contains 14 different comic book artifacts — thin pamphlets and hardbound volumes, broadsheets and fold-out posters — but I like how calling such a treasure trove “a book” wonders at the edges of that word. What, exactly, is a book? This turns out to be a topic that I’m perennially fascinated with, and as I perused Ware’s amalgamation, I found myself reconsidering some of my basic assumptions about what constituted bookishness: was a book defined by its composition? By an expectation of narrative? By a currency of pages? By its singular thingness?

Indeed, Building Stories subverts more than a couple mainstays of the medium. There is no table of contents. No set of instructions. No “if this then that.” No beginning, middle, or end. You must pick up one of the objects (I went for one of the hardbound books first, as it somehow felt like a more legitimate starting point) and then simply launch into the ether. But gradually, through the slow, exquisite visual pacing that defines Ware’s storytelling, a narrative emerges, or not so much a narrative but a life. Or not so much a life but lives — interconnected by a slightly dilapidated three-story Chicago brownstone that occasionally offers its own silent advice to its resident cast of characters. The top floor apartment is occupied by our anti-heroine, an unnamed melancholic woman with a prosthetic leg who works in a flower shop and worries the days alone with her cat. The middle floor is haunted by a couple trapped in one of those restless equilibriums two clicks short of love, and on the ground floor we find the aging landlady, who has seen enough to know that loneliness is a gift.

As one booklet ended and I picked up the next, I found myself skipping back and forth through time, in a happenstance hopscotch of my own design. In one pamphlet, the woman was in art school, in another, she was married with a child, in still another she was just out of school and au pairing for a rich couple. Temporality was undermined, shorn, skirted. And yet the sum of such dislocation began to work its magic on me. The sequence of booklets was like one of Ware’s pages, where the panels are not always delivered in obvious sequence but rather in an orbiting constellation of possibility. At first, you want to know which is the right way to read a page, so that you can get it right, but once you give up this need for direction, the potential for multiple narratives frees you from the responsibility of linearity. You begin to read as one lives life — out of sequence, with stops and starts, with side plots that take all of our attention and then just as quickly evaporate into nothing.

What I find particularly effective about Building Stories is the combination of this narrative multiplicity with the beautifully rendered banality of Ware’s subject matter. Ware has such a gift for tracking the seductive rhythms of life’s more ordinary moments. A cat on a bed. A woman shifts positions. The cat, still on the bed. Snow falls. The woman shifts again. The cat shifts. It is no longer snowing. The medium of graphic novels — caught somewhere between the pacing of a movie and a book — is especially suited for clocking such passage of time. Each of Ware’s panels becomes a choice to capture a certain moment, but why capture the moment when nothing has seemingly happened? Yet the choice to do so, the choice to represent that moment, makes something happen. The cat shifting becomes all cats who have ever shifted, who will ever shift. It is why we love literature; it is why we love photographs; it is why we love to hear stories over a cup of coffee. Let me tell you this so we can make it realer than real.

In this regard, Ware’s onomatopoetics are deceivingly evocative. Here he uses a well-worn tool from the comic book artist’s cabinet — that is, the representation of an action sound through a word (kerplam!) — and lovingly reapplies it to his wheelhouse of his melancholic domestic oblivion. Set goes the tea kettle onto the countertop, plop goes a warm body into a couch, fff goes a pair of jeans as she pulls them up over the last inch of waistline flesh. This symphony of normalcy is composed of imperfect approximations, but their imperfections are what makes them so delicious because we know these gestures, this last inch of flesh. That fff is louder than any kerplam can hope to be.

Building Stories gives me hope for the future of storytelling. Our increasing reliance on visuals and our tendency to now digest, capture, and broadcast media in bite-sized chunks does not necessarily spell the end of nuance and pathos. Rather, faced with the splintering of old media, today’s storytellers must execute their craft with even more precision and restraint, even as the boundaries of the book become increasingly blurred.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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This Chart Is a Lonely Hunter: The Narrative Eros of the Infographic

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Bill Marsh.  “It’s All Connected: An Overview of the Euro Crisis.

Perhaps you, like me, came across a delightfully elegant, delightfully lucid interactive chart of the European financial crisis in the online edition of The New York Times last fall. Clicking through its various cataclysmic scenarios, watching the arrows shift and the pastel circles grow pregnant with debt, I was able to comprehend, for the first time, the convoluted and potentially toxic lending relationships between Greece, Italy, and the rest of Schengen Europe as well as the implications of this toxicity for the wider world. The reduction of such messiness into such neatness filled me with a familiar, slightly nauseating feeling of delight, a feeling I have since dubbed the infogasm. This fleeting sense of the erotic occurs only when a graphic perfectly clarifies complex phenomena through the careful arrangement of its visual data sets. The infogasm is instantaneous, overwhelming, and usually transitory in nature, leaving you oddly exhausted. Plain old text does not function with quite the the same epiphanic climax; by comparison, the written word’s magic is elusive and lingering, often revealing its fruits much later, after the article has been finished and put away.

In 1976, neuroscientist Douglas Nelson definitively described the cognitive potency of the image as the pictorial superiority effect. He and others have shown that our brains are essentially hard-wired for visuals—the very architecture of our visual cortex allows graphics a unique mainline into our consciousness.  According to Allan Pavio’s somewhat controversial dual-coding theory, imagery stimulates both verbal and visual representations, whereas language is primarily processed through only the verbal channel. While there has been considerable pushback to Pavio’s theory since its introduction in the 1970s, numerous experiments have shown that imagery activates multiple, powerful neural pathways of memory recall.


Detail from Ingrid Burrington, “The Center for Missed Connections.

For instance, when we look at Ingrid Burrington’s hand drawn map of all the missed connections posted onto NYC’s Craigslist in May 2010, we react instantly to the familiar visual representation of Manhattan and Central Park, but we also extend our own mnemonic narratives around the graphic. We replay our own experiences of the cityspace, our own missed connections at these “hot spots” of loneliness. We remember the girl with red geek-glasses who stooped down to give us back our pen outside of the LensCrafters on 81st St. We place our own mental pin on the map alongside the others. But what color do we choose? Are there different categories of missed connections?

We turn to the key for answers. Of course:

We turn back to the map, reexamining the city with a new filter. What’s with the trio of W4Ms at 85th and 2nd? Were these all the same person, a missed encounter on repeat? And why so few W4Ws? Who was that W4W in front of the Museum of Natural History? Was she about to enter the museum, or was she already emerging—basking in the wondrous glow of science—when she spotted the other woman? (Maybe the museum never entered into it.) Hundreds of possible stories like these spin forth from Burrington’s map, and from the visible sum of these individual happenings a larger narrative of urban voyeurism emerges.  In straddling the visual/verbal divide, infographics like this map first gain entrance by using the succinct allure of imagery, but then linger in our imagination by nurturing our hunger for cultural narration.

It is no surprise, then, that our media are now saturated with such infographics, both on-and off-line, as a host of publications such as The New York Times, Good, The Guardian, Wired, Time, The Economist, The Believer, and The Wall Street Journal all regularly depend on data visualizations to provide their readers with that on-the-spot, quasi-highbrow sociological analysis. As one might expect, the output is decidedly mixed. Faced with a glut of mediocre charts and diagrams, there is now a backlash among designers and journalists against the overuse of meaningless infographics.

Here, graphic designer Alberto Antoniazzi pokes fun at the media’s ongoing love affair with the snappy graph:


Alberto Antoniazzi’s “Most Popular Infographics You Can Find on The Web”

His point is certainly taken: just because something looks good, doesn’t mean it says anything of value. And yet, as someone obsessed with the methodologies of storytelling, I cannot help but wonder about the hidden narrative mechanics behind the infographic.  Perhaps my infogasm is not as superficial or ephemeral as it might first appear.

A large part of the infographic’s intrinsic appeal seems to lie in its visual reductionism of complex information. Reductionism itself is not inherently bad—in fact, it’s an essential part of any kind of synthesis, be it mapmaking, journalism, particle physics, or statistical analysis. The problem arises when the act of reduction—in this case rendering data into an aesthetically elegant graphic—actually begins to unintentionally oversimplify, obscure, or warp the author’s intended narrative, instead of bringing it into focus.

Effectively pairing depth with breadth is not a new problem. In his sprawling history of information, James Gleick describes how the invention of the semaphore, telegraph, telephone, and the first digital computer all posed significant discursive dilemmas by offering a simultaneous increase in the ease of data delivery alongside a necessary contraction of the language around this data. “The bit” was invented in the 1950s by Claude Shannon to describe the most basic unit of information, essentially an on-off binary—the amount of information required to decide a coin flip. The more possibilities, the more uncertain the eventual outcome, the more bits are needed. As Gleick writes, “Information is uncertainty.” In this context, the last thirty years have been particularly revolutionary because of uncertainty’s unprecedented growth—we’ve been forced to radically adapt the ways we interact, exchange, and conceptualize our society’s information currency. The gigabyte—one trillion bytes of digital information—has now entered our everyday lexicon not just in reference to a computer’s storage capacity but as a metaphor (however inaccurate) for the memory in our own brains. Surrounded by a rising sea of uncertain bytes, our culture has become desperate for effective ways to visualize and synthesize all of this data, lest we become completely overwhelmed, brought to our knees by a state of total noise (to borrow David Foster Wallace’s term).

In 1983, Edward Tufte—considered by many to be the Godfather of information design—published his now-seminal The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, which began to articulate an ethos for what was then still a relatively nascent discipline. Since then, much has changed in the field of data visualization, especially once the graphically flexible web page became the standard information carrier and the rise of Web 2.0 essentially allowed anyone—whether they were a professional or an amateur—to effectively present vast datasets. But as futurist George Dyson points out, while our access to raw information has grown exponentially, our time to process this information has declined rapidly, which has placed an unprecedented premium on the act of meaning-making.  Since we no longer have the time (or at least we don’t grant ourselves the time) to generate our own analysis, sift through the evidence, or weigh competing narratives, we find ourselves inevitably looking for shortcuts. And given a) our brain’s preference for the visual and b) the current complexity of our world, we’ve learned that the very best shortcuts usually come in graphical form, preferably with lots of arrows, preferably with some kind of interactive element that makes us feel like we too are actively crunching the data. Consequently, we’ve given today’s visual storytellers considerable power: for better or worse, they are the new meaning-makers, the priests of shorthand synthesis. We’re dependent on these priests to scrutinize, bundle, and produce beautiful information for us so that we can have our little infogasm and then retweet the information to our friends.

Ever-present but often unexamined, the expanding discipline of information graphics has been in desperate need of a comprehensive survey, a checkpoint to measure the field’s varied progress. Luckily, Berlin-based Gestalten Books has provided us one in the brilliant Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language. Like most cool things in my life, I first heard about Visual Storytelling from Maria Popova’s masterfully curated Brain Pickings. Sometimes design compendiums can come off as uneven affairs, but Visual Storytelling is a thoughtful, curated tour de force—it effectively encapsulates a watershed moment in information design while still managing to hold up as a standalone volume.

The book presents over 100 designers from around the world (not surprisingly, much of the best design work comes for Europe), gracefully organized across five chapters: Seeing the News, Viewing Science and Technology, Looking at Travel and Geography, The Modern World, and Observing Sports (the active verbs are telling). Perhaps my favorite part of the book is a section entitled “The Visual Storyteller,” which features a series of interviews with leading designers (including Steve Duenes, head of the visual journalism section at The New York Times) about their techniques, influences, and concerns for the future of the discipline. Several of their sketches and drafts are also presented alongside their finished work and it was helpful for me to see their work in this kind of context. Pulling back the curtain on their process made the sometimes overly slick infographic feel like a very human creation. These practitioners, like us, are constantly struggling with how to represent the world around us. Such an ambitious pursuit will always remain a work-in-progress.


Densitydesign. Draft for How’s My Fishing? Greenpeace “Oceans” Campaign


Most of the graphics in Visual Storytelling are terrific. Some of them are beautiful. Some of them are completely confusing. Taken in its entirety, the book feels like an honest, wide-reaching portrait of the field. But be warned: this book is strong medicine. When faced with a cornucopia of such infographic pornography, the brain begins to shut down, so in order to avoid infogasm overload, I recommend getting your dual-coding fix in small, measured doses, and then putting the book down and slowly moving away from it.

Several of the more successful examples in Visual Storytelling showed me just how nuanced the infographic’s narrative alchemy can actually be. Indeed, looking through this volume, I came to realize that skillfully rendered visuals, like any effective medium, present the reader with a layered release of storylines. An initial narrative will shift and deepen under sustained scrutiny, raising a series of questions that build off one another.

A terrific example of this is the illustration of the country’s overall democratic shift in between the 2004 and 2008 elections (also from Steve Duenes’s team at the Times):


“For Much of the Country, a Sizable Shift.”  The New York Times. (11/6/08)


More effective than any text-based narrative, this graphic quickly illuminates how and why Obama got elected. Here we can easily see how almost all of the West (save McCain’s Arizona) shifted considerably to the left. This does not mean all these states went Democrat—of the Mountain states only New Mexico and Colorado voted for Obama—but rather that the barometer of the average American voter changed significantly. The only regions that went remarkably right of 2004 were Appalachia and the so-called Bible Belt, both places which would later become fertile grounds for the Tea Party.

There are also many questions here: What happened along the Texas/Mexico border? What about eastern North Dakota? Did Massachusetts vote more conservative simply because John Kerry was not running? Or was there another factor at play? The whole narrative of the election is not encapsulated in this graphic, nor should it be—infographics are at their best when they help you visualize one particularly illuminating trend that could not be told in any other way. The most successful infographics operate with elegance and restraint, and it is this restraint—this withholding of other information so that you can see a point clearly—that forces you to ask the big questions. When firing on all cylinders, infographics are almost always the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it.

Other graphics in Visual Storytelling demonstrate the fraught collision point of art and data, a grey area that has caused a lot of tension among designers and statisticians alike. There is the startling 100 Years of World Cuisine, a powerful composition that uses various containers of blood arranged across a kitchen table to tell the history of bloodshed in the 20th century.


Clara Kayser-Bril, Nicolas Kayser-Bril, Marion Kotlarski. 100 Years of World Cuisine.


By tackling such a complex subject as human bloodshed with the metaphor of food preparation, the graphic risks oversimplifying the historical and cultural forces at work in all of these conflicts. Indeed, when pressed, the metaphor begins to unravel, or at least raise unintended questions: who’s preparing this food? Why the creepy suspended ladles? Why are the Congo Wars about to get the KitchenAid mixer? Such quandaries highlight the sometimes thin veneer that can lie beneath a visual’s initial sensational impact. Then again, maybe this graphic is not asking for such close reading, nor does it claim to explain every piece of historical nuance. Its purpose is to be sensational and help you visualize what were previously murky statistics. What it does do well: show how relatively few people were killed in the Yugoslavian conflict (130,000) compared to the wars in Congo (3.9 million) or even the 1941 partition of India (500,000).  Is this purpose enough to forgive the exploitative overtones of the piece? I’m not sure, but it certainly got me thinking about what infographics should and shouldn’t do.

Visual Storytelling also features a fine selection of work from Nicholas Felton, one of our more gifted manipulators of visual information. Feltron, as he is know professionally, is particularly adept at allowing an emotional resonance to rise from the coalition of what would otherwise be fairly stark data. His graphics and typography are pristinely rendered, with ample whitespace, but like all great storytellers, he knows that cultural (and personal) pathos arises from what data you leave off the page.


Nicholas Felton. “Rising and Receding.” McSweeney’s.


In “Rising and Receding,” Felton collects a surprising range of social indicators and measures their shift since the economic downturn. Aside from the 300% upturn in familicide, none of these markers are all that extraordinary on their own—people are buying more Kellogg cereals, donating more sperm, having safer sex. Pollution is down, sleep issues up. Yet this infographic succeeds because the collective collation and bare presentation of this data against the backdrop of a recession offers us a fleeting peek into intimate moments during hard times, albeit intimacy that is repeated across millions of households. Felton knows that to convey a trend most effectively, you must leave room for a dual narrative—the reader needs to process  the information on both a public level (“Births are down?”) and private level (“Could we afford a child right now?”).

Felton has become well known in design circles for publishing his own annual report, in which he collects, graphs, and maps his personal life in numbers: miles walked, number of music tracks played, pages read, shoes purchased. He undermines our expectations of how a corporate annual report should function by co-opting the form to examine the banalities of the everyday: Social Stella consumption: 157, down 46% from last year.  Occasionally he will throw in a category that is not so much a category but rather a story left untold: Burglars confronted: 1, at apartment window. These reports are so seductive because of their clinical composition and yet from this austerity, a kind of universal vulnerability emerges. We know it is much messier than these clean lines of data suggest. In his attempt to summarize a year of his existence entirely through statistics, Felton essentially points to the beautiful impossibility of this task.


Nicholas Felton, “2010 Annual Report.


Visual Storytelling includes an excerpt of his 2010 annual report, in which he turns the lens of examination onto his recently deceased father. Many who have lost a parent are familiar with the task of sifting though a lifetime of mementos, receipts, and photographs, but Felton takes this process a step further by using all of his father’s detritus to fashion a comprehensive notitia memoriae—charting the life of a man who was born, who lived, who worked, who bore children, who loved, who died. We are more than sum of such evidence, but the evidence itself is at once heartbreaking and triumphant.

Beyond these data-driven graphics, Visual Storytelling contains an array of more abstract, artistic pieces that provide a nice counterpoint to all of the nerdy number-crunching that often dominates the field. These are not infographics per se, but they ask questions of our intense relationship to images by playing with familiar visual tropes. We have grown so comfortable with graphics in our lives that we often forget to maintain any kind of critical awareness about how infographics function, how they lure us in, how they tell their stories, how they can lie to us.

Toilet Paper magazine’s segmented fingernail feels sensual and subversive, yet utilizes a visual language of declension that we immediately recognize from our chart-heavy lives:


Maurizio Cattelan, Pierpaolo Ferrari, and Micol Talso. “Untitled.” Toilet Paper, Vol. 2


Yet there are no scales, no reference points, no key: what is growing smaller here? Is it us? Or are we the culmination of the graph? By leaving so much unspoken, the image implicitly asks us what happens when our bodies become the new pallets for information design. How will we mark out units? And what will the units be? Perhaps this process has already begun.

Maria Fischer’s Traumgedanken is a book on dreams that employs colored threads to connect and cross-reference ideas, calling into question the physical manifestation of the hyperlink:


Maria Fischer. Traumgedanken.


HTML linking is so familiar to us now that it has essentially become invisible: we rarely stop to think about the implications of these virtual threads on sourcing, intellectual property, clarity of thought. We think: there is a link, so it must be connected. But is this bit of code enough? Will association eventually replace all exposition?

This is not to say that everything contained in Visual Storytelling is a perfect culmination of the genre. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, the volume also contains several overburdened examples of information design, where the visual language of the graphic has completely obscured the meaning. Yet these failures were some of the most interesting images for me. We can learn a lot when the designer has lost the forest for the trees:


Francesco Muzzi. “La Fabbrica del Sapere.” Wired Italia.


Francesco Muzzi’s illustration of the Italian education system is graphically busy, like a Terry Gilliam movie gone wrong, but it’s also trying to do way too many things: to cover daycare through graduate school, to chart dropout rates, hours at school, and numbers of teachers, to list teacher salary, student debt, and graduates searching for work abroad. The designer makes the mistake of thinking complex data needs complex presentation, when in fact the opposite is true. One sees this same kind of visual cacophony all over the media. Readers (myself included) are guilty of succumbing to such colorful temptations: we see lots of bells and whistles, and even if we don’t really understand what’s going on, we feel as if we are absorbing (via osmosis?) something potentially deep and prescient from all that data.

Ironically, Andrew Losowsky’s introduction to Visual Storytelling, the most text-heavy section of the book, is one of the few sections that is poorly executed, suffering from some of these same symptoms of over-design:


The introduction to Visual Storytelling: So much text, so little time.


Heavy quotations, unresolved and unexamined, slap you in the face as you try to follow the meandering text columns. The physical congestion of words on the page quickly overwhelms the actual content of the words themselves, as if the act of reading was a mere afterthought. It’s comforting to know that text still needs quiet order to function well, and particularly in this age of hyper-stylized form, there’s the constant risk of gilding the lily. I often feel this kind of pummeling when I’m trying to work my way through certain webpages with multiple, unrelated threads all vying for my attention.

Fittingly, in this same spatially fraught introduction, Losowsky touches upon the dangers of graphic imprecision when he points to the epidemic of errors in infographics that depicted Osama Bin Laden’s death. These widespread mistakes, picked up and repeated across a wide swath of publications, prompted graphic designer Antonio Giner to pen the Statement Against Fictional Infographics, subsequently signed by 107 designers from 27 countries. The six-point manifesto culminates in this demand:
6. Infographics are neither illustrations nor “art”. Infographics are visual journalism and must be governed by the same ethical standards that apply to other areas of the profession.
Whether this distinction can be made in practice remains to be seen. Visuals are a notoriously slippery medium. Thousands of minute decisions (or non-decisions) go into a graphic’s formulation—everything from color to scale to line thickness to use of symbols. Seemingly simple questions of graphical form can have powerful implications.

This was never more evident than during the health care debates in 2009, when Rep. John Boehner produced a maddening flow chart of the Democrats’s health care proposal at one of his press conferences, presumably in an attempt to underscore the plan’s inefficient bureaucracy:


Boehner’s mindfuck of a flow chart.


This deliberate obscuration of the issue by way of poorly assembled visuals rubbed many designers the wrong way. Boehner’s flow chart set off what data visualizer Alex Lundry called “Chart Wars,” in which tasteful redesigns of the same graphic demonstrated just how subjective and influential the visual presentation can be. This is always true, but with data visualization, the old adage is essential: the form is the content.

Beyond political fisticuffs, poor design decisions can have serious, even deadly, consequences. During the critical days prior to the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003, while the damaged shuttle was still in orbit, a team from Boeing was asked to make a diagnostic Powerpoint presentation to senior NASA officials predicting the extent of damage to the wing and the risks of the shuttle reentering the earth’s atmosphere. Boeing’s presentation was incredibly convoluted, hampered in large part because of the inept visual delivery of its information. Edward Tufte, a longtime critic of Powerpoint’s bureaucratic clumsiness, painstakingly analyzes one of the Boeing slides:


From Edward Tufte’s “Powerpoint Does Rocket Science: Assessing the Quality and Credibility of Technical Reports.”

Tufte points to the elaborate, meaningless hierarchy built into the Powerpoint program that here manifests in six levels of information, denoted by a range of dashes, shrinking bullet points, and throwaway parentheticals. In fact, the executive summary at the top of the slide is slowly undermined by each successive point, though this is lost in the slide’s garbled techno-speak. “Significant” or “significantly”—a vague but promising word—is used five times, each time with slightly different meanings, none of them referring to “statistical significance.”  The lack of clarity in this presentation eventually contributed to NASA’s conclusion that it was safe for the shuttle to return to earth, a decision that would end up proving fatal.

Despite the great pleasures of the infogasm, it is evident that now, more than ever, we must be cautious with our information design. Visuals are easy to make, but they are also easy to fake, and their allure can turn them into potentially dangerous pieces of evidence. Despite Giner’s manifesto for clear standards in visual journalism, infographics—guided by designer, journalist, statistician, and artist alike—will probably continue to operate in that grey area between fact and fiction, egged on by our insatiable hunger for their graphical eros. I don’t think such fuzziness is all bad—most new fields, particularly those with wide-ranging sociopolitical implications, need time to find their footing and carve out a particular disciplinal language. This does not mean such negotiation should be a passive process. We need more excellent surveys like Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language to help us celebrate quality, shun mediocrity, and articulate the criteria for how infographics can remain luminous and profound. Beyond just disposable feel-good fodder for the Twittersphere, data visualization is the emblematic medium of our times, and the natural evolution of its form might be the greatest predictor of what is to come.

A Year in Reading: Reif Larsen


This past summer, I spent three weeks writing up in the Catskills. My neighbor happened to be Philippe Petit, the infamous funambulist who walked the Twin Towers way back in 1974. We shared a couple of dinners together and he showed me his timber frame barn, which he had carefully built by hand using all of the traditional post and beam tools—adzes and chisels and flarens. Inside this barn, he performs illusions and balletic feats of gravity for an intimate audience of fifteen, and though it was a cold and rainy afternoon when he showed me around, and though it was just he and I in this tiny theater carved by hand, I could not help but be transported into the world of that space, the world of believing that everything you thought to be true might in fact not be true at all.

Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which uses Petit’s wire walk as an ephemeral nucleus for the lives of a dozen interconnected characters, reminded me of that afternoon, and not just because of Petit’s presence in each: more than any other novel in recent memory, McCann’s kaleidoscopic narrative creates completely immersive, self-contained story spaces that you simply don’t want to leave, so that when he does turn the dial and chapters into the next character’s world—from the estranged Irish brothers living in the decomposing Bronx to the neurotic grieving mother of a Vietnam soldier on Park Ave—you are caught in the paradox of the shifting literary masterpiece: you hate the author for daring to pull you from this cockpit, even while knowing that he has created the cockpit, just as you also know that the cockpit he will plop you down into next, and the movement into that cockpit, will ultimately reward you more than the original world you were so loath to leave. Much of your trust in this operatic migration is of course due to McCann’s simply exquisite prose—at times pinpoint Nabokovian specific, at times reaching and luminous in the tradition of the most sublime Irish writers (or even Cormac McCarthy, perhaps, though the terrain here is not borderland and mud and saddlebag but rather spray paint and heroin and underpass).

I generally am suspicious of the novel composed of rotating viewpoints, partly because it is just so fucking hard to pull off, but mostly because I am a traditionalist at heart, and any sort of overly-purposeful stacking of the narrative symphony that gestures at being the next Great Social Novel usually makes me feel like the author is breathing down my neck and takes me out of the everyday meat and bones of the story—why I care about the characters in the first place and the details of that sweltering city and the last sunlight coming in through the groin of the water towers. You don’t want to feel like a novel is straining to be great. There are times when even this masterful concoction treads lightly into this dangerous territory, mostly when the text bows its head in italics, but McCann really has come as close as any mortal can to capturing a particular place/time/gestalt/graffiitied desperation by rotating the lens of humanity across a bench full of impossibly rich and imperfect players. Quite simply, this is a book to marvel amongst and then to wonder what on earth comes next.

Other hot mentions from 2009:

The Invention of Air by Stephen Johnson, which is such a sneaky, brilliant book supposedly about the renaissance electrician/evangelist Joseph Priestly but is in fact a blooming meditation on how luminous, lasting ideas are created, cultivated, and cross-pollinated across ordinary men of genius.

The Lazarus Project by Alexander Hemon. Just started this one again. Hemon’s sentences are bell-tight beautiful but also slippery and layered. I find I have to read them twice to really digest the countermelodies and glissando at work here. Such a good book that grows with age.

Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic. Keep a notebook at your side as you read this novel disguised as a hagiographical dictionary of the mythical Khazar empire. There are so many delicate nuggets to savor here, such as: ”Every afternoon at five o’clock when the shadow of the Mincheta turret fell on the other side of the rampart, Lady Ephrosinia Lukarevich, a respected noblewoman from Lucharitse Street, would pick up her porcelain pipe, fill it with the yellowest tobacco, which had been kept in raisins over the winter, light it with a lump of myrrh or a pine splinter from the island of Lastovo, give a silver coin to a boy from the Stradun, and send the lighted pipe to Samuel Cohen in prison.”

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