Book Review: Jan Schwochow Explains the World in 264 Infographics

Book Review: Jan Schwochow Explains the World in 264 Infographics

As a kid, I was fascinated by the picture book Grover and the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum. It follows the Muppet’s misadventures through a museum that literally has everything in the whole wide world, sorted into thematic galleries. My favorite was the Things That Can Make You Fall Hall.

Jan Schwochow’s new book The World Explained in 264 Infographics is an adult version of the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum, and it’s nearly museum-sized: you’ll need to reinforce your coffee table for this thick slab of visual information, its page edges attractively color-coded by category (history, politics, society, economy, sports, technology, culture & arts, science).

The author has been in the business for three decades, producing detailed infographics for various publications. He and his agency are based in Germany, so there’s a distinctively European perspective to the information presented; a welcome one for those of us who are sick of being Americans. Many of the graphics have been previously published, while some have been created specifically for this volume.

Paging through The World Explained, at first I tried to take it all in: every word, every panel. Soon, though, I was overwhelmed, and reduced to paging through the book in awe. Occasionally I’d stop to study the graphics in detail; y0u can bet I paid very close attention to the harrowing explainer on precisely how the U.S. could launch a nuclear counterstrike, which comes complete with profoundly disconcerting illustrations of Donald Trump accessing the launch codes.

On page after full-color page, The World Explained demonstrates the growing fascination of infographics in an era where digital design tools make it possible to create fantastically detailed, precisely accurate images that contain so much information, it can be challenging to wrap your mind around what you’re seeing. Consider, for example, a diagram showing the network of fiber optic cables connecting countries around the world, depicting the extraordinarily elaborate physical infrastructure underlying the internet.

The volume also leaves the reader with an appreciation of the creative decisions required to make an appealing and effective infographic. Some of the decisions made by Schwochow and his team are inspired; for example, a group of circles of varying sizes and thicknesses, comparing the world’s great rivers not just by length but by flow.

Others are less effective. A paint palette comparing artists by top sale price of an individual work, labeled “the most influential artists of all time” (something may be lost in translation here), isn’t particularly illuminating. Schwochow and his colleagues may have felt a special pressure to deliver a stylish graphic depicting the leading lights of German modernism, but their angled timeline appears, ironically, jumbled and confusing.

All in all, The World Explained is an incredible journey — and, at $65, an impressive gift item for that person who seems to know everything. This’ll show ’em.

Jay Gabler