Not too far into the future, someone will likely write a damning indictment of the data journalism gold rush — that weird moment a decade ago when every news site rushed out to find its own version of 538's Nate Silver. We paid a steep price on the road to data journalism; some pundit might even be able to craft an argument that you don't get a President Trump without a data journalism wizard like Nate Silver to soothe the masses into complacency.
More data, of course, is generally a good thing. But data without context is nothing. it's numbers in a spreadsheet, or lines on a graph. You can find a story in numbers, but it takes a special talent to bring that story out, to synthesize the art of narrative with the science of data collection.
The new book Seattleness: A Cultural Atlas is an attempt to tell Seattle's story through data and data visualization. Released just in time for the holidays, it's a stunner of a book — large and colorful and incredibly pretty. It's the kind of hardcover volume that you'll find on the front shelves of tourist-friendly bookstores and on the coffee tables of bed and breakfasts around the region for years to come.
In the introduction to Seattleness, authors Tera Hatfield, Jenny Kempson, and Natalie Ross describe their quest to combine data and narrative in the loftiest terms possible:
Like Italo Calvino before us, we allowed ourselves to be lost in the real and imagined spaces of our city's past and future. We invoked the names and genre-bending work of W.G. Sebald, John McPhee, Lygia Clark, and Buckminster Fuller (to name a few) as a means of inspiration to explore beyond the spurious boundaries and fortifications set up between people and place, architecture and landscape, past and present, the individual and the collective
This all sounds very serious for a book that contains a lovingly assembled flavor profile of the Pike Place Market's notoriously disgusting Gum Wall.
Seattleness revels in the trivial and the mundane. It's a handbook for the city that contains almost no information an editor at a travel guide publisher would identify as particularly useful. Flipping through the book, you'll find a photographic taxonomy of bitter native plants and recreations of downtown library buildings through history and a map of sasquatch sightings in the area. There's a seismic depiction of a 2015 Seahawks game, showing how the fans literally caused earthquakes in their fervor for the 2015 championship match against the Green Bay Packers. It's all very vivid and interesting and luxurious.
Speaking as a decidedly un-data-driven human, a few of the visualizations in Seattleness only managed to confuse me. An early map of the city's "land parcels for units created by real-estate lot lines" that have been arranged to "resemble and follow the growth rings of a native Western Red Cedar tree" serves no purpose that I can determine. I can't tell what all the dots on a chart of Common Street Trees of Seattle are supposed to signify, or why they're arranged the way that they are.
Granted, my history with mathematics is a long and tortured affair. But if a data visualization can't successfully clarify some obscure piece of information for even the most number-challenged audience member, what good does it do? If you can get anything out of the spherical charts and teeny-tiny print depicting the attractions at the Alaska-Yukon Exposition and the Century 21 Exposition, you are a better reader of Seattleness than I.
But for every obscured chart or graph or map, Seattleness contains six or seven delightful pages of artfully arranged information. Even lifelong residents will learn something new about their city here. The map of coffee shops, illustrated by density and ownership (nonprofit, independent/family owned, local chain, national chain, global corporate, or bikini barista) will inspire readers to go investigate some far-flung neighborhoods to find outstanding examples of the city's thousand-plus coffee shops and twelve-plus coffee roasters. Sections of the book involving the strata of downtown skyscraper construction by decade and highlighting the city's extravagant park system will likely be the basis of walking tours for years to come.
When read in aggregate, the data-driven charts and maps and graphs in Seattleness tell a story that other guidebooks simply cannot. Other books in the Northwest section of your bookstore describe Seattle as it was, or Seattle as it is today. Seattleness describes the city as an object of accrual. Every point of data is its own story, its own person, its own shred of information. When taken together, all these disparate facts and figures combine to form something new: they build a city.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant