When reading a book, our eyes scan over thousands of words so regularly and our minds imagine the story into reality so effortlessly that we forget something important.
Every individual word means something.
The author chose every single individual word in a book for a reason (at least in theory). So, if we can find new ways to see patterns in the individual words used in texts, we should be able to uncover new ways of exploring and enjoying books.
This past weekend, I wanted to move beyond line charts in order to explore what hierarchical visualizations could offer readers. The word “hierarchical” simply refers to data being “nested” within other data. Let’s look at food, for instance. Rocky road is a kind of ice cream, which is a kind of dessert. See how each of the bolded words in that sentence”fit” into the one that follows? That’s nesting; that’s hierarchy.
Let’ see what this looks like with a book. Take The Hate U Give. The novel is divided into five parts. Each part has a number of chapters. In each chapter, I identify the three words that the author uses most frequently. If readers can see how these different data points relate to each other, it becomes possible to pose new kinds of questions about the text. (I choose The Hate U Give because I have started reading it, but haven’t finished it at this point. So I’m confident I don’t bring the kinds of biases to my post here that come with having finished or taught a book before!)
When I break down the book hierarchically, here is what I see.
First, there is a sunburst diagram. It is interactive, so you can click on a part or a chapter and watch the diagram zoom in. To zoom back out, just hit the up arrow in the right corner. Go ahead, click around and see what you see.
Second, you can look at the same data but in a radial diagram. Like the sunburst diagram, it shows the word frequency data nested by parts of the book and chapters within the parts. But unlike the sunburst diagram, the radial diagram does not require interactivity to reveal most of the data. So you get the relationships between data in a single presentation, though you can still roll over elements and see hover windows with more detail. Give the radial diagram a read and roll over.
At the time of writing, I was about a third of the way through the book. Looking at the visualizations, I am struck by how prevalent the words “daddy” and “momma” are. It makes me wonder if this story isn’t just about Starr, but equally and perhaps even more so about her parents. This would make sense when one considers the book’s title coming from a Tupac Shakur quotation in which he describes the phrase “THUG LIFE” as an acronym for “the hate u give little infants fucks everybody.”
As I continue reading, I do so with added attention not only to Starr but also to the parent figures in her life. My hope is that if “the hate u give” can have such a tragic effect on children, perhaps the love her parents give her can have a comparable inverse effect.
Tell me in the comments or on social media what you see in the data! And if you haven’t yet, try plotting some of your own key words for The Hate U Give using the tool I created here.