Yoknapatawpha Crossing

A Change of Scenery

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A little while ago, I drove home to spend a few days with my family. I had wanted to read Edward Tufte’s books on graphic design, and since my dad conveniently owned the first three he loaned them to me. I’ve since finished moving into a new apartment, and finished those books.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is, despite the title, absolutely delightful. Every aspect of the production of the book was carefully undertaken, and the result is a volume that is physically beautiful. More important, though, is that it is written with clarity, economy, and wit. Tufte advances an idea. He presents evidence. The reader is convinced. The structure of the book is transparent, leaving the reader with a clear idea of exactly what is discussed, and how it fits into the larger argument. The language is crisp and engaging, and when he presents examples of bad graphic design, Tufte scolds without being strident. The tone of the book is entirely Horatian.

Tufte’s subsequent two books are exercises in repetition. The third book, written over a decade after Visual Display, offers in the introduction an explanation of the function of the three books in relation to one another. The ill-fit argument is that the first book is about pictures of numbers, the second book about pictures of nouns, and the third book about pictures of verbs. This is rather surprising; to take one example the chart on page 42 of the first book directly prefigures much of the third book. In fact it is very difficult to discover anything substantive in the second or third books that was not initially discussed, with greater clarity and brevity, in the first book. Tufte does continue to present beautiful examples of graphic design, and these examples continue to be printed in beautifully crafted books. Unfortunately, as the weight of the paper increases, he uses more and more words to say less. The second and third books become rambling and unfocused; bad examples are caustically attacked; no clear and coherent argument emerges. The reader is left wondering what the purpose of books two and three really is, as they seem little more than example books, albeit very beautiful ones.

This is probably a problem with me more than with Tufte. Phillip Pullman wrote a trilogy of fantasy novels, His Dark Materials (now being turned in to a movie trilogy), which I had a similar experience with. The first book was wildly creative, original, and entertaining, and I eagerly dove in to the remaining two only to see the story quickly degrade into a saccharine morality tale. But that tale was undoubtedly present from the very beginning, if I had just read a little more carefully. The issue was probably that I had a different idea of the story than the author, and wasn’t willing to go along with anything else. So it probably went with Tufte. The first book was so impressive and gave me such a clear personal idea of what the follow-ups should be that I couldn’t (and can’t) judge them with an objective eye.

Anyhow. It still pisses me off.

So my new apartment is awesome. You should come party.

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Written by Daniel Grady

September 10, 2007 at 02:42

Posted in Books, Rants

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