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This is the cover of the book Atlas of the Invisible: Maps and graphics that will change how you see the world by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti.

Book Review: Atlas of the Invisible

Normally, I wouldn’t expect to be reading an “atlas” for work. But, when Evelina Judeikyte called Atlas of the Invisible “one of [her] favourite discoveries this year!,” I had to check it out. And I’m so glad I did!

When I think of geography, I tend to think of it as a mathematical pursuit…measuring distances, elevations, depths. But authors James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti remind us that geography is a social science that can help us describe and understand human behavior.

Here are some of my favorite things about Atlas of the Invisible:

There’s a visual table of contents.

Similar to the interior covers of W. E. B. DuBois’s Data Portraits, Cheshire and Uberti include a thumbnail for each visualization that appears in the book. This makes it super easy to reference favorites later.

This is a photo of the first page of the table of contents for Atlas of the Invisible. It shows two sections: preface & introduction and where we've been. It has thumbnail images of thirteen different data visualizations.

It’s not just maps.

I mean, it’s an “atlas,” so of course there are lots of (interesting!) maps.* But some of my favorite visuals in the book, like the bicycle slope chart (Revolutionary Transport, pgs. 90-91) and the time use area chart (Unequal Loads, pgs. 132-133), were non-maps. Dataviz inspiration abounds!

This is a slope graph. It has short sloped lines connecting sets of two bicycle wheels. Each bicycle shape represents a different city, like Boston, Moscow, Paris, New York, Longon, and Suzhou. This photo is from the section called Unequal Loads, on page 132. It shows the average daily paid and unpaid work for mean and women, ages 15 to 64, based on national time-use surveys between 1999 and 2015. A blue triangle represents men's work and pink triangle represents women's work. This is the image for Sweden, the most balanced country. In Sweden, men work 5 hours 13 minutes paid and 2 hours 51 minutes unpaid. Women work 4 hours 35 minutes paid and 3 hours 40 minutes unpaid. The text says Scandanavian families divvy unpaid work more equally, but women still do more.

I learned stuff!

Did you know that the cables that carry the internet under thousands of miles of ocean are less than 2″ in diameter? (Octopus’s Garden, pg. 98) Or that there are more lightning strikes in shipping lanes than in other areas of the sea? (Electric Currents, pgs. 120-121) My husband is a fan of cool non-fiction**, and after a few minutes of my “Look at this! And this! And this!,” he added Atlas of the Invisible to his To Be Read pile.

It’s action-oriented.

The authors say it themselves, in the concluding paragraph of the book:

We hope this book gives you hours of enjoyment, looking, discovering, seeing. But we hope it provides more than entertainment. Whilst I write I’m watching satellite imagery of a giant iceberg swirling away from Antarctica at the end of the joint hottest year on record. What good is such knowledge if we all remain spectators? We hope that at least one of our stories will have inspired you to act.

Many of the visuals make strong, policy-relevant statements, particularly about the environment.

Have you read any great data visualization books lately? Drop them in the comments below!

*My favorite maps in the book are The United Commutes (a redrawing of US state borders based on where people live and work; pgs. 74-75), Carbon Overhead (a sobering, smudgy view of airplane exhaust in Europe and the US; pgs. 114-117), and Looking for Lead (a case study of successful statistical prediction in Flint, Michigan; pgs 126-127).

**Fiction, he says, is “lies.”

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