Working for the marrow: a review of Info We Trust

Adapted from correspondence with the author.

Grad school has made me into a mercenary reader. My habit is to tear the meat off of a book, throw the bones back, and move on to the next assignment. This is not a satisfying way to engage with RJ Andrews’s book, Info We Trust. The book isn’t meat–it’s marrow. It’s rich, it’s rewarding, and it requires a lot more work from me to be nourishing.

Many data visualization books read like textbooks. Funny, personable textbooks, but textbooks all the same. Info We Trust is more of a meditation. Gentle explanations of chart types meander through a speculative history of the human perception of up and down. Best practices for table design emerge from a section about the history of bureaucracy. There is no neat delineation between background, body, and exercises: it’s all of a piece. I suspect that is the point.

Info We Trust tells a grand story about civilization. The first three chapters are a human history of information, connecting data work today to the world before electronic record-keeping. I’m not immune to poetry, and I have a long-standing (if often neglected) love affair with history. In my experience, history is spiky with context, competing interests, and strange accidents. The narrative presented by Info We Trust is so smooth and straightforward that I find it suspect. As a heroic epic, it works. As a history, I’m not quite willing to take it on faith.

However, that’s also part of what I enjoyed about the book. In the chapter on storytelling, Andrews wrote, “Great stories are rich with opportunities for the listener to make connections on their own. These self-made connections help the story leap off the page and into the reader’s imaginative reality. The more the story becomes alive in the reader’s head, the more meaningful the story becomes.” If it isn’t obvious that I struggled with this book: I struggled with this book! But that struggle brought it to life. I came face-to-face with what I thought I knew, where I was willing to listen, and my own biases.

The second half of the book is rich with opportunities for positive connections, particularly in the chapters on museum design, storytelling, engineering, and advertising. Andrews opens doors to unexpected worlds, allows me to make my own connections, and lets me find value in my own way. In the cathedral case study, I got to see him draw those connections, too. The “we” in the title is not just a figure of speech. I felt like I was sitting in conversation with Andrews throughout the book. The extensive marginalia presented alternate-universe versions of that conversation, where we split away from the main narrative to wander down a different rabbit hole.

Info We Trust is a generous and deeply human reflection on data. There is plenty of concrete advice about visualization, but it is woven into the narrative, not plucked out, polished, and ready for use. Nor should it be. The field has plenty of technical manuals. It doesn’t have anything quite like this.

My habit as a reader is to ask, what is this book trying to do? What is it going to teach me? Andrews flips those questions back around: what am I going to do with the book? How am I going to learn from it? Info We Trust is not a list of best practices, an in-depth history, or an immediate return on investment. However, it is a refresh on the craft, a feast for the eyes, and an opportunity to think deeply by drawing connections. I’m grateful for the chance to wrestle with this text, and I expect I’ll return to the mat soon.

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