Non-linear time

Humanist data viz; non linear time… what does that even mean? what could that mean in practice?

My first attempts have been mapping shifts in time in fiction.

The first was inspired and guided by Like Talking With a Friend: Intimacy in Lucia Berlin’s Peripatetic Narratives (https://lithub.com/like-talking-with-a-friend-intimacy-in-lucia-berlins-peripatetic-narratives/), an analysis by Alexandra Chang of a short story written by Lucia Berlin. As it happened I had read the story, Stars and Saints.

Chang makes lots of interesting points on the strategies used by Berlin in the story and what they allow her to achieve. I’ve focused on one element – seeing how Berlin plays with time and speed.

Berlin’s story starts bottom right, “today” (story chronology on x-axis), on line 1 (y-axis shows the line of text in the narration). The story finishes top right, back on “today” on line around 269.

In between Berlin zooms back and forward in time – her earliest childhood (in green on the chart), a number of incidents in adulthood (the purple column), but mostly in a period of her childhood covering the main events of the story.

Sometimes the story’s time zips around. Things happened. The adult Berlin reflects on them, and on similar or contrasting experiences in her life. At other times the narration moves smoothly forward, taking the reader through events in the order they occured.

Producing the graph certainly helped me to read the story with great attention, taking in more of the shades of meaning and correspondences Berlin is presenting, as well as some of her method. Once I developed the base visualisation I was able to use it to track and explore a number of ideas and themes. Just one version is shown here.


Earlier this week I finished reading Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. This book has a number of narrators and interlocking story lines. By the end I felt I almost had a handle on what had happened. I made a table and then sketched it out.

time movement in Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

There are three main threads of time through the book.

  • A series of historical events from 1791 to 1969. The story moves back and forward through this period as the novel progresses. This is shown on the y-axis
  • A series of letters, interleaved through the historical sections, mainly presented in chronological order. The exception is the final letter presented which is a slight step back in time line. This is shown on the x-axis.
  • A journey of a few days that was undertaken just after the first letter but completed before the second. This is not included in the diagram, but the timing is indicated in the note at the top.

Developing this certainly helped me to better understanding of the structure of the novel. It would probably help me to understand more about the content and the themes presented, if I were to re-read with this beside me – but that’s not something I want to undertake at the moment.


I think this idea could be used as a more active, integrated, part of reading. A lot of authors play with time, and I quite often get confused.

I’m also interested in taking the graphs themselves and doing a further transformation – for example treating them as a pattern or a literal thread in a textile piece. A couple of ideas are bubbling…

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