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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, April 17, 2004
    Beauty is truth, truth beauty

    Rearranging the books on my groaning shelves today I did well to stop to linger at only one lost old favourite: Edward Tufte's Envisioning Information. It's a book about how to make complex data accessible. How to display the three-dimensional realities of life on the two-dimensional page.

    It's a beautiful book, which is the whole point. Eradicating fuss and noise, clutter and glare; championing space and simplicity, layering and separation. Helping people easily perceive complicated pieces of information requires beautifully-produced graphs, charts, maps, websites... 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' Keats wrote. Tufte shows how; he also writes critically against Powerpoint and other tools which he says, 'weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis'.

    Part of the attraction of Tufte's careful work is that he draws on practitioners from all sorts of other disciplines, equally devoted to clarity and beauty, like Italo Calvino, here describing his approach to writing:

    My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language ... Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world - qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds ways of evading them.

    The lightness Calvino describes is a category in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium and as an Amazon reviewer wrote,'The lessons learned from "Lightness," "Quickness," "Exactitude," "Visibility," and "Multiplicity" can be applied in any creative situation.' They complement Tufte's approach. And would be equally valid, I'm thinking, in community development or liturgy...