The best books to inspire you to think differently about data

Who am I?

In sixth grade, my teacher tried to teach the class how to read line charts – and something fell into place for me. Ever since then, I’ve tried to sort data into forms that we can use to make sense of it. As a researcher at Microsoft, I consulted with teams across the organization – from sales to legal; and from Excel to XBox – to help them understand their data. At Honeycomb, I design tools for software operations teams to diagnose their complex systems. These books each gave me an “ah-hah” moment that made me think differently about the craft of creating visualization. They now sit on my shelf in easy reach – I hope you find them fascinating too.

I wrote...

Making Data Visual: A Practical Guide to Using Visualization for Insight

By Danyel Fisher, Miriah Meyer,

Book cover of Making Data Visual: A Practical Guide to Using Visualization for Insight

What is my book about?

On a fairly regular basis, people come to me with a pile of data and say, “Hey, can you visualize this for me?” I’ve learned that the important part of that process isn’t the visualization – it’s refining the underlying question to be answered. Which parts of the data actually matter? Where is the insight hiding? My co-author and I wrote this book to capture a set of straightforward steps that helps refine your questions and map them to a visualization. If you’re trying to navigate the murky space between data and insight, this practical book shows you how to make sense of your data through high-level questions, well-defined data analysis tasks, and visualizations to clarify understanding and gain insights along the way.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Exploratory Data Analysis

Danyel Fisher Why did I love this book?

I learned Tukey’s name about as soon as I learned that data visualization existed as more than a menu in Excel and a personal obsession. Tukey coined the term “exploratory data analysis,” and so tapped into a passion for swimming around in all the interesting rows and columns. Tukey was working before computers were widespread, and so I got a view of how he saw data: working against the constraints of pencil and paper; keeping your hand moving as fast as possible. While the explorations we can do with gigabytes of memory and powerful rendering are very different, the goal of getting information into your head as fast as possible is unchanged.

By John Tukey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Exploratory Data Analysis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This title is part of the Pearson Modern Classics series. Pearson Modern Classics are acclaimed titles at a value price. Please visit for a complete list of titles.

The approach in this introductory book is that of informal study of the data. Methods range from plotting picture-drawing techniques to rather elaborate numerical summaries. Several of the methods are the original creations of the author, and all can be carried out either with pencil or aided by hand-held calculator.

0134995457 / 9780134995458 EXPLORATORY DATA ANALYSIS (CLASSIC VERSION), 1/e

Book cover of The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

Danyel Fisher Why did I love this book?

I’ve always felt a desire to make the world make sense through data – that numbers and structure could help unlock hidden meanings. When I read this novel, I felt seen: it’s told from the perspective of T. S. Spivet – a 12-year-old boy who has the same urge. Spivet thoroughly documents the world around him, sketching an ant he sees in the grass, and drawing schematics and maps of the spaces he travels through on his quest to travel to the Smithsonian Institution. The book’s margin is lavishly illustrated with Spivet’s diagrams – in seeing the world through his eyes, it felt like how I see it through my own.

By Reif Larsen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A brilliant, boundary-leaping debut novel tracing twelve-year-old genius map maker T.S. Spivet's attempts to understand the ways of the world

When twelve-year-old genius cartographer T.S. Spivet receives an unexpected phone call from the Smithsonian announcing he has won the prestigious Baird Award, life as normal-if you consider mapping family dinner table conversation normal-is interrupted and a wild cross-country adventure begins, taking T.S. from his family ranch just north of Divide, Montana, to the museum's hallowed halls.

T.S. sets out alone, leaving before dawn with a plan to hop a freight train and hobo east. Once aboard, his adventures step into…

Book cover of W. E. B. Du Bois's Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America

Danyel Fisher Why did I love this book?

I had read some Du Bois in school; until I learned about this book, I’d had no idea he had created a set of compelling and provocative illustrations of graphs showing the state of Black America at the turn of the 20th century. Du Bois’ information graphics are carefully and elegantly structured to tell a story: he masterfully chose colors, designs, and representations to manage to seem completely objective – while conveying resilience, opportunity, and hope for the future. His work is a masterclass in how visualization can be so much more than a list of numbers.

By The W E B Du Bois Center at the Universi,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked W. E. B. Du Bois's Data Portraits as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"As visually arresting as it is informative."-The Boston Globe

"Du Bois's bold colors and geometric shapes were decades ahead of modernist graphic design in America."-Fast Company's Co.Design

W.E.B. Du Bois's Data Portraits is the first complete publication of W.E.B. Du Bois's groundbreaking charts, graphs, and maps presented at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Famed sociologist, writer, and Black rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois fundamentally changed the representation of Black Americans with his exhibition of data visualizations at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Beautiful in design and powerful in content, these data portraits make visible a wide spectrum of African American culture, from…

Book cover of How Maps Work: Representation, Visualization, and Design

Danyel Fisher Why did I love this book?

Maps and data visualization live in my mind as close cousins: geographical coordinates are often the best way to show where data happens, and the techniques that cartographers have worked out can be adapted to the ways I represent visuals. Maps also have some interpretive advantages over abstract data: San Francisco is always west of Washington, DC. That’s not as true of information graphs, where their respective data points might move around depending on what is being plotted and what the axes are.

By Alan M. MacEachren,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How Maps Work as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now available in paperback for the first time, this classic work presents a cognitive-semiotic framework for understanding how maps work as powerful, abstract, and synthetic spatial representations. Explored are the ways in which the many representational choices inherent in mapping interact with information processing and knowledge construction, and how the resulting insights can be used to make informed symbolization and design decisions. A new preface to the paperback edition situates the book within the context of contemporary technologies. As the nature of maps continues to evolve, Alan MacEachren emphasizes the ongoing need to think systematically about the ways people interact…

Book cover of Semiology of Graphics: Diagrams, Networks, Maps

Danyel Fisher Why did I love this book?

A new edition of Bertin’s 1963 Semiology was released a few years ago, and my heart swelled with joy. For years, I’d worked off of bad photocopies of an inter-library loan book that had long since gone out of print. In this new edition, I could see how Bertin works through different dimensions and axes – when you want to plot two different quantitative axes over a map, what are your choices? What if you want to plot them over a graph, instead? What changes? I loved exploring these choices with Bertin, as he explores how different color mappings, iconic representations, and design choices change the way the reader interprets the graph.

By Jacques Bertin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Semiology of Graphics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in French in 1967, Semiology of Graphics is internationally recognized as a foundational work in the fields of design and cartography. Based on Jacques Bertin's practical experience as a cartographer, part one of this work is an unprecedented attempt to synthesize principles of graphic communication with the logic of standard rules applied to writing and topography. Part two brings Bertin's theory to life, presenting a close study of graphic techniques, including shape, orientation, colour, texture, volume, and size, in an array of more than 1,000 maps and diagrams.

You might also like...

Anatomy of Embodied Education: Creating Pathways to Brain-Mind Evolution

By E. Timothy Burns, Jim Brown,

Book cover of Anatomy of Embodied Education: Creating Pathways to Brain-Mind Evolution

E. Timothy Burns

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The vast mysterious terrain explored in this book encompasses the embodied human brain, the processes through which humans grow, develop, and learn, and the mystery of consciousness itself. We authors offer this guidebook to assist you in entering and exploring that terrain.

As parents and educators come to understand this terrain and these vital processes more fully, we also begin to see how we have been unnecessarily hampered by erroneous assumptions and flawed educational practices common to our culture. Then, seeing those impediments, we can create ways to move beyond them, allowing our children’s growth, development, and learning to proceed more freely and naturally.

Anatomy of Embodied Education: Creating Pathways to Brain-Mind Evolution

By E. Timothy Burns, Jim Brown,

What is this book about?

Imagine that you have obtained a guidebook for exploring a vast, mysterious forest that you have heard of, but have never known how to approach-a forest so intricate and lush that most people feel reluctant to enter it without an experienced guide, and yet so alluring that you long to wander its paths, follow its streams to their source, gain access to its panoramic views of terrains that have barely begun to be mapped.

What makes this terrain so alluring is that it enfolds largely untold knowledge of the processes through which humans grow, develop, learn. And as explorers understand…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in statistics, cartography, and Montana?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about statistics, cartography, and Montana.

Statistics Explore 26 books about statistics
Cartography Explore 29 books about cartography
Montana Explore 65 books about Montana