Category Archives: David’s Posts

Stefanie Posavec’s data visualizations of literary texts

Line drawing showing sentence lengths in first chapter of The Great Gatsby

“First Chapters” by Stefanie Posavec. Qtd in “Distant Reading” by Scott Esposito. The Point 9: 2015, 183-93.

The featured image above is a map of the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, created by Stefanie Posavec as part of a series called First Chapters, in which she took the first chapters of a series of literary works and counted how many words were in each sentence, mapping the lengths of the sentences according to a very simple set of rules (see “First chapters“, to the right).

She has also mapped the first chapters of Cannery Row, A Room of One’s Own, Beloved, On the Road, and many more.

The analytical process is really simple and the tools necessary are so easy–any software that can plot a line of a certain length would work. And if you wanted to add another layer of complexity to the process, you could easily make lines different colors or use different line types (wavy lines, dotted lines, jagged lines, big thick lines, etc) to convey something about the sentences besides just length, say tone or style.

These mapping techniques would not work wholesale for the Fun Home projects that you all are working on; you probably wouldn’t get very far with mapping out sentence lengths given the visual nature of the graphic novel. However, can you think about ways that you might do something similar with graphic novels?

You might also check out some of the other types of literary maps that Posavec has produced. She created an iPhone app for Stephen Fry’s book that uses tags and a circular data visualization in order to allow readers to move in a nonlinear fashion through the book. She also created a data visualization of the lyrics of an OK Go album, which became the album’s cover and other artwork. She’s got lots of other similar cool work, which might spark ideas for you.

Detail from "(En)Tangled Word Bank by Stefanie Posavec and Greg McInerny, representing one of the six editions of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. The shapes represent every chapter of this edition of the book, and the color indicates whether that paragraph remained in the next edition of the book.

Detail from “(En)Tangled Word Bank by Stefanie Posavec and Greg McInerny.

The image to the left shows one of the series of data visualizations that Posavec and Greg McInery created epresenting the six editions of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The shapes represent every chapter of this edition of the book, and the color indicates whether that paragraph remained in the next edition of the book.

Two more resources that might be helpful for you

Data visualization of Charles Minard's flow chart of the Napoleonic War


Highcharts is an interactive JavaScript system for creating interactive data visualizations. It’s free for noncommercial use and allows you to embed your charts. I could imagine that some of these charts and graphs might be useful for you–one of these two types of heatmaps (heatmap 1, heatmap 2) or a treemap like this one might be a useful way for you to visualize your argument. You’ll have to work with Java code a little bit, but Highchart’s embedded editor makes it not too awfully complicated to play around.

Vida offers another set of JavaScript data visualization tools, including quite a few different options like Sankey diagrams (energy flow sankey diagrams and funnel flow sankey diagrams). Here are three posts to find out more about Sankey diagrams:

250 Best Movies as a Subway Map

I can no longer find the original post at Vodkaster, but a few years ago they came out with their list of the 250 greatest movies of all time, but instead of just making a simple internet list, they produced a data visualization showing those movies in the format of a subway map. Here’s the map, which Miramax reposeted (click to embiggen):

Film genres are represented as lines: Romance, Comedy, Drama, Western, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Animated, and so on. Movies that span multiple genres are represented as stations or nodes. Lines generally progress chronologically.

Think about how many different elements of information, and different types of relationships between information, are conveyed in this single image.

Bechdel’s spreadsheets

I was looking for an image on Flickr today and stumbled upon a few photos from a conference on Comics Philosophy and Practice that might be of interest to you.

These two spreadsheets are not from Fun Home but its sequel, Are You My Mother? (And here’s a more close-up shot of the latter.) That’s Bechdel on the right, discussing the spreadsheets–she seems to be outlining the process by which she went about organizing the narrative threads into the book. I don’t know if she used a similar spreadsheet for Fun Home too, but it’s safe to say based on the book itself and these images, that Bechdel very carefully structures and organizes the narrative and thematic elements of her books.

These photos of Bechdel’s presentation might help you to think about how to analyze the structure of Fun Home for your projects.

Some resources that might be useful for you as you think about Fun Home

The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power protests in New York City against the bill. Wikipedia entry.

Last year, Uganda passed a law criminalizing homosexuality, which was ultimately invalidated by the nation’s top court, but for a span of almost a year consenting adults who engaged in homosexual sex might be punished with life in prison and anyone who was found to be counseling gay people would have faced 7 years in prison. Here is the Wikipedia article describing the law. The day after the law was passed, one of the Ugandan tabloids published “EXPOSED! Uganda’s 200 Top Homos Named,” which seemed to be a provocation not only for the police but for vigilantes to go after the people identified.

Some American pastors served as consultants for the nation of Uganda in drafting this bill, including Scott Lively, an anti-gay activist best known for his book The Pink Swastika, which has been thoroughly discredited by historians but that blames the Holocaust on homosexuals. Lively’s organization has been officially designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. Lively was interviewed by NPR’s Michele Martin on 2/27/14 about the Ugandan law and gay rights. The first part of the story may or may not be interesting to think about, but the reason I’m linking you to this interview is the ending. Lively says that perhaps the Ugandan law is a tiny bit extreme, and proposes his own best case scenario for how homosexuality should be handled in the US, to return to the times before the Stonewall Riots Alison Bechdel describes in chapter 4. Lively says:

Well, I believe that societies of the world have an affirmative duty to protect the natural family and to discourage all sex outside of marriage. And I’m talking about adultery, fornication, homosexuality, incest, all of it. But I also believe that in our societies we should have, you know, reasonable tolerance for people who decide to live outside the mainstream discreetly. I think we had a pretty good balance in the 1940s and ’50s in this country. Unquestionably, it was a family-centered mainstream culture and subcultures in which homosexuals and others could live out their lives and be happy.

There’s also an article from last year about the South Carolina legislature punishing the College of Charleston for including Fun Home on a list of recommended reading over the summer. One legislator in South Carolina said that it is inappropriate to have open discussion in college classrooms about homosexuality–that such topics are not worthy of scholarly attention. Bechdel is quoted as replying, in part, that “It’s sad and absurd that the College of Charleston is facing a funding cut for teaching my book – a book which is after all about the toll that this sort of small-mindedness takes on people’s lives.”

It might be useful for you to think about these questions as you develop your maps of Fun Home.

  • What does Bechdel mean when she asserts that Fun Home is about “the toll that this sort of small-mindedness takes on people’s lives”?
  • If Lively got his wish and we returned to the 1950s when gay people kept their sexuality “discreet” and hidden from the outside world, then would everyone get to “live out their lives and be happy,” as he asserts?
  • Based on what we’ve read of Bechdel’s book, what sorts of impacts might such a cultural and legal turning back have?

Week Ahead: 10!

Painting on street: "101010"
10 3/23 Vietnamerica (to p. 47)
3/25 Vietnamerica (to p. 82)
3/27 Workshop time for Mapping Fun Home.

Writer/Designer chapter 6

3/29 Due: Sunday Funnies 7

This week, you should be working on your Mapping Fun Home projects as we begin reading G.B. Tran’s Vietnamerica.

You’ll have time in class on Friday to work on your projects and to ask questions about them as you progress, so please come to class with your ideas developed. The better your sense of what you’re trying to accomplish, the better your classmates and I will be able to help you to accomplish your goals and to push your ideas further.

As we begin reading Vietnamerica, you might want to check out the trailer for the book.

VIETNAMERICA from Joe Tomcho on Vimeo.

Note that there are page numbers in the book, but only intermittently. It might be worth adding page numbers to your text or using post-it notes so you can find specific pages in class.

(image credit: “10-10-10” by Flickr user woodleywonderworks.)

My Altered Book page

A number of years ago, I started ripping up books and gluing the pages onto canvas or boards and doodling on them just as a more or less random art project. I showed a friend, who told me about Phillips’ work, and I started playing around with it. At first, I honestly felt kind of silly, but then I made this page:

"Beastly Savages by me.

Beastly Savages by me.

It reads:

Come and lie down in the big bed you’ll need decanting

No “No.” “No,” “No, no!” it hurt. He screamed “No, no.”
man holding him short and angry kicked the door shut he ran wouldn’t answer

dark; fastened sit in the corner help a long time crying why they were angry broke angry Beastly savages

As you can see, there’s nothing particularly complicated about this page visually, but I definitely had the feeling

“Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”

I decided to participate in this week’s Sunday Funnies assignment along with y’all, so I made the video below to illustrate this quote from Rainer Maria Rilke:

How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.


–Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. Letter #8.

I recorded myself reading these two paragraphs using Audacity. Then loaded the audio as a base track in iMovie and layered the following photos over it:

I created short links for each of those photos using, so that I could easily include links in the credit page inside the video itself, in addition to listing them here.

I also added a layer of background music with a 1:00 excerpt of a piece by Phillip Glass, “Molly is a Dreamer” (from Theater Music Archive, Vol.I). The music is not in the public domain or Creative Commons licensed, so it’s possible that my video will be taken down if someone objects to it, but I believe that I’ve satisfied the requirements for Fair Use of a piece by only using a tiny sliver of Glass’s music, attributing the source, and using it only in a nonprofit and creative capacity.

When it was finished, I uploaded the video to YouTube and then embedded it into this post.

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