Jack Kerouac’s On The Road was notorious for being written in just three weeks on a 120-foot scroll of teletype paper. The source print is one of the strongest visuals in the literary world, yet even still, it reveals little of On the Road’s actual message. What’s inside that manuscript? What ideas lurk inside the text?
It’s a question that drove designer Stefanie Posavec to draft her Writing Without Words project. It was a series of literary infographics, mostly focusing on On the Road, breaking the text down sentence by sentence, mapping us through the epic narrative in a new way.
“I think that projects like this one focus less as a traditional data visualization and more as something that reveals the hidden data that is around us in order to inspire subjective feelings in the viewer,” Posavec tells Co.Design. “I like to call this sort of work ‘data illustration’ for this reason.” Her piece titled Sentence Drawings is a sprawling, color-coded tube network that diagrams the length and topic of every sentence in the story. The narrator cuts through the image in fire engine red, while jazz appears as a soft blue and drugs are a taupe. At the end of each sentence, the line diverges from its path, making a sharp 90-degree cut. The result is a real feel for the book, even if you’ve never read it–a unique trip through the winding rant of Kerouac’s stream of consciousness.
“The Writing Without Words project started as a project to visualize differences in authors’ writing styles and became something different,” Posavec explains, “where I used data to communicate what I personally found beautiful and interesting about literature.”
But if Sentence Drawings finds some strange and wonderful equilibrium between the subjective and the objective–an abstraction of the original art–Posavec’s companion piece Sentence Length seems to offset this equilibrium with a more traditional, objective view of the text.
Whereas Drawings is a twisting sprawl, Length is a tight bar graph. The trippiest part of Posavec’s whole experiment is that when you look closer, you realize that both of these infographics are really conveying identical core information–sentence length and sentence topic. They’re the exact same “info” with a slightly different “graphic.” One appears subjective, or at least editorialized, in its scribbles. The other appears objective and scientifically detached in its clearly delineated bars.
So when you examine Length, Kerouac’s 120-page chemical imbalance is lost somewhere in its regimented grid, as if his infamous road trip were just a shuttled cruise to a formal dinner party. And maybe, totally tacitly, Posavec is reminding us that On the Road, while drafted in just three weeks, had actually been planned and notated for years before. On the Road may have been madness, but there was a method to it.