Berny Tan and Sher Chew’s “Experiments in Literary Cartography” just published in Parsons Journal for Information Mapping
Back in June, I wrote a post about Isle-to-Isle, an ongoing literary data visualization project created by VCS alumna Berny Tan and designer Sher Chew. The project is now in its tenth week, and Berny and Sher have just had a paper they’ve written about its early weeks published in the Parsons Journal for Information Mapping.
The paper’s abstract provides an excellent overview of Isle-to-Isle’s purpose and parameters:
The application of strict rules or the limited variables of data visualization to the immense fluidity of literature may seem at first counterproductive. Does systematizing literature diminish its power? Yet, authors weave great works of literature out of a specific organization and selection of words. This process, as intuitive and emotional as it might be, can thus be viewed as an interpretation of data. The infinite possibilities of the novel, the essay, the poem, and so on, are essentially crafted from linguistic data sets. Each work of literature, through their interpreters, then becomes the birthplace of derivative interpretations of data: stratums of innumerable branches that represent an individual reading of the text.
Isle-to-Isle is an ongoing web-based collaborative reading project that grew out of one designer’s and one artist’s separate investigations into the visualization of literature. Drawing from our shared passion, yet differing approaches, we dissect the same literary source material—Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. Every week for a year, we will read ten pages of the novel. Without consulting each other, we then each generate a diagram based off those ten pages. At this time we are going into the second month of the project. The results are publicly displayed online through a dual-input feed that explores the challenges of critically visualizing a discrete qualitative data set. Our personal and idiosyncratic method may stimulate new interpretations of the novel and the act of reading itself.
In addition to presenting the first few diagrams from Isle-to-Isle, the paper discusses Berny and Sher’s divergent and still-evolving approaches toward the project, as well as some unexpected developments that have occurred along the way.
Two passages in particular caught my attention. The first makes an interesting point about the notion of mapping in relation to different kinds of non-physical or conceptual space:
In our eyes, Isle-to-Isle is a form of literary cartography. In using the term cartography, we are referring to an act of mapping that goes beyond the traditional definition. It requires the liberation of the mapping practice from its strictly physical, geographical framework. It is, after all, synonymous with the act of locating oneself in relation to space, regardless of whether that space remains physical, or enters into the psychological, hypothetical, or even literary spheres.
In the following section, they consider the complex relationship between the facts embodied in Verne’s text and their own very personal and idiosyncratic responses to them:
Generally, we approach the data by a means of identification, and then interpretation. Mining the ten pages for intrinsic content is the objective precept. By identifying certain patterns within the story, we are able to visualize these trends. Yet, how we express the data is highly subjective; how and what we choose to communicate in the diagrams is completely by our own volition.
Reading in itself is an intimate experience. In distilling data through our reading of the book, cerebral interpretation and emotional response are inextricably linked. One of the most fascinating aspects of our differing approaches is the interaction of the cerebral and the emotional within our individual processes.
Berny and Sher delve more deeply into these ideas by looking back at the project’s first five weeks, examining how their interpretations of The Mysterious Island have evolved over time. Along the way, they’ve arrived at some very telling insights about their respective approaches to Verne’s story. (For example, in reviewing their contributions to the project, they realized that Sher has tended to grapple with the text from a much more intellectual and design-oriented standpoint, while Berny’s approach has tended to be more empathic and personally engaged.)