Historically, I’ve been great at buying books to stage my shelves, but less good at reading them. In 2021, I’ve made a conscious effort to read, learn from, and review more data visualisation books–you can see my book reviews here, with many more to come! Something that helps tremendously is trying to align my reading with the excellent Data Vis Book Club–an online format run by Lisa Charlotte Rost of Datawrapper.

So when the good folks at Nightingale were looking for something a little different – not a book review but a book club review – I was more than happy to volunteer. It turns out that Data Sketches was scheduled to be reviewed in August. So, this isn’t a review of Data Sketches, by Nadieh Bremer and Shirley Wu, as such, but of the book club. (If you want a potted review, in short, I bought it the day it came out, read it from cover to cover, and loved it! The review has already made it to my website.) 

This time I still wanted to attend the book club, but knowing I had already read and reviewed the book in advance, it was a perfect opportunity to share my thoughts with others, meet the authors, and review the process instead. Before you remember your Zoom fatigue and close down this article … wait! Read on. The Data Vis Book Club might not be what you think. For starters, it’s not a Zoom call. And, yes, you did just read, “meet the authors!”

What is Data Vis Book Club? 

It’s a different kind of book club. Here are the highlights:

  • It’s online and entirely virtual
  • It’s always at 6 PM UK time and welcomes folks from around the world
  • No cameras, no microphones–it’s entirely text driven
  • It’s hosted brilliantly by Lisa Charlotte Rost who will make everything abundantly clear from start to finish
  • You’ll have a chance to discuss the book and then, 45 minutes in, the authors will join the discussion

The environment is friendly right from the start, and the fact that the whole event takes place entirely by text feels relaxed. No cameras or microphones creates the perfect environment for those more introverted or less comfortable with speaking in groups, and straight away you feel like Lisa is the perfect host. She has prepared the room, has everything laid out, greets new arrivals, explains the format, encourages introductions and mixing (at attendees’ own pace), and moves from one part of the event to the next at a leisurely pace when everyone is comfortable. Now I don’t go to many parties, but that sounds like a perfect party host!

Guide to the book club and ground rules–perfect preparation!

The key to the whole event is colour. Everyone who enters the event at notes.datawrapper.de gets assigned a colour, always unique amongst attendees. I’ve been to enough of these events to know that Lisa will always be there welcoming us in pale yellow, and straight away I found other attendees introducing themselves in pastel shades of blue, green, brown, pink, and orange. In introducing yourself there’s a chance to say why you chose the book and what you were hoping to get from it, as well as to learn about everyone else’s experience with data visualisation. 

After introductions there will usually be two or three questions related to the book itself with plenty of time to think, plan, type, and respond. The document will then just grow … either enter your own sentence or two in reply to the question, or with just a well-placed line feed you can enter any conversation or respond to any thought. You can pose your own answer, agree (or disagree) with your fellow attendees, and take part in the conversation, whatever you prefer. 

The most endearing characteristic is the relaxed and off-camera nature of the event, which means you can multi-task or dip in and out. In fact, at one point,I took part in a great discussion with one hand, while stirring my bolognese sauce with the other. The kids were too hungry to wait for the end of book club, but it didn’t matter! Lisa will be there from start to finish (although, come to think of it, maybe she had to stop to make dinner too, who knows?!) to ensure that the conversation moves slowly.

Discussion in full flow–every colour represents a different person

The personal highlight for me in each of these events usually comes at 45 minutes past the hour when the authors join. It’s a chance for the authors to sign in with their own colours, but otherwise take part in exactly the same way as everyone else. So the third question to the group, timed to coincide with the authors’ entry, will usually be the opportunity to ask any specific questions to the author or authors. As a fan of these events, I’ve been there to ask questions of Lauren Klein and Catherine D’Ignacio, Helen Kennedy, Jon Schwabish, Stefanie Posavec and Giorgia Lupi, Alberto Cairo, and now Nadieh and Shirley. Every one of the authors has patiently answered thequestions put to them in detail. Nadieh and Shirley were no exception. (I think I’d finished my spaghetti bolognese long before Shirley gave her final answer.)

The authors Nadieh and Shirley (in brighter pink and green) join in to answer questions

It’s a book review format I would definitely recommend. The informality and friendliness allows for a relaxed discussion, and it’s the only book club I’ve ever attended where there’s regularly a chance to talk to the authors, who themselves have always been patient enough to answer every question. You can follow @datavisclub on Twitter to be first to find out the next book up for review and scheduled book club date. It’s certainly encouraged me to read more dataviz books and become (I hope) a better and more rounded data visualisation proponent as a result.

Global Data Fluency Lead at JLL | Website
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