If your idea of a good time doesn't include reading the Statistical Abstract of the United States, try Wurman's homespun version, Understanding USA. The glossy, gorgeous paperback takes a lucid and visually appealing look at numbers representing everything from substance abuse to biodiversity, from media consumption to homelessness. Wurman is both proud of his book and disappointed by it. "It could have made a difference" during last year's election campaign, he says, because he'd expected it to be used by news media and political candidates "to clarify to themselves and their constituencies what they were talking about." So what happened? "Nothing happened," Wurman shrugs. "During the `96 election, Ross Perot showed charts that were really shitty, but the power they had on people was amazing. That was my hope for this book - that it would be a jumping-off point for better-informed discussions." Despite that letdown, the million-dollar project has already broken even with more than 100,000 copies sold. Too cheap to join the club and shell out 25 clams? The entire contents of the book can be viewed at (and downloaded from) www.understandingusa.com.
Information Anxiety 2, 2001
A sequel to part one, published eleven years ago, Information Anxiety 2 offers Wurman's advice on how to wade through the growing bogheap of data. Like Understanding USA, it serves as a more casual and more entertaining companion volume to Edwards Tufte's three tomes on information design. Information Anxiety 2 is full of little surprises and delights. The chapter on `Finding Things' shows a map of major U.S. interstates and casually reminds the reader that the interstate system "was designed and built during the Cold War to evacuate U.S. cities in the event of a nuclear war." A small selection of "Actual instructions printed on various products" includes this gem found on a bag of Fritos: "You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside." Not everything in IA2 is brilliant, and some of it is just plain puzzling - as when Wurman situates Angkor Wat in Thailand (it's in Cambodia), or when he professes his belief in word of mouth and his aversion to book blurbs (in the very same book that carries thirty-six of the gushing bits of praise). Even so, almost every page offers food for thought. Take the title of Chapter 13: "Education is to learning as tour groups are to adventure."