Much Ado About Everything

INFORMATION ANXIETY by Richard Saul Wurman, New York: Doubleday. 356 pp. $19.95

THIS is a subversive book. It teaches disrespect for computer graphics, USA Today's weather map, expensive audio systems, and subscriptions to magazines and newspapers you will never read. It's also a pious book - pious toward the art of conversation, Charles Kuralt, and journalism with the story left in, computer programs that reduce anxiety by sorting the mail, and Ted Williams, who knew when not to swing.

Author Richard Saul Wurman is an architect by training and a born mapmaker. Creator of ACCESS guides to cities and museums, Wurman has sought to reduce the anxiety caused by overstimulation in a message-loaded environment. His book is for anyone who has ever experienced a sudden, inexplicable pang of guilt when walking by a newsstand, not to mention the daily dread of facing the growing pile of newspapers and magazines to which one has subscribed in a fit of expansive optimism.

Wurman works in behalf of understanding, not just information.

From the spacious marginal quotations, it's clear on whom Wurman draws: everybody. From Tom Robbins to Roland Barthes, from John Naisbitt, author of ``Megatrends'' (he wrote the introduction), to Theodore Roszak to Bertolt Brecht, Wurman's sources are voluminous. An aspect of the ``reader friendly'' (Wurman distrusts the term) design of the book, these margins make good reading in themselves. Read in conjunction with the text, they source the echoes, or do a little dance of their own.

Other features of this state-of-the-art business book are its 20-page table of contents - a good conceptual map of the book; its text, which can be read forward, backward, and inside out on those sleepy shuttles; and its copious illustrations.

Nevertheless, ``Information Anxiety'' is a real book and will be read like one - by millions, probably. First by business men and women, who think they have to be ``up'' on everything (Wurman teaches them to say ``I don't know'' rather than ``uh huh''); then by everybody else. I recommend it to my journalist friends. Wurman is tough on newspapers (``violent wallpaper''). He teaches us how to watch the evening news (his list of questions focuses on the use of the information).

The chapter on ``Language: Babel, Seduction, Content'' emphasizes humor and thinking, about equally, and should be included in writing anthologies. But the book is really for everybody who has ever misread a chart (and felt guilty, when it was the chartmaker's fault) or felt squeezed out of a museum because the show wasn't designed for people. The media environment, it turns out, is hostile toward people. This book is our defense.

The time is ripe for Wurman's emphasis on understanding. Now that telephone answering machines are used more to screen callers than to catch missed calls, and we are learning to use technology against itself, it's time we took the offensive against intrusive data.

Wurman is himself good at turning information into knowledge, from the visual display of quantitative data in annual reports to the almost vertiginous complexity of a Parisian neighborhood.

``Information Anxiety'' is surprisingly rich in personal anecdote. Wurman tells how his father would ask him tough factual questions at the dinner table - not an early form of Trivial Pursuit, but to teach him to look it up. Wurman's son Josh, he tells us, is a meteorologist - which introduces a fascinating digression on the preferability for weather maps showing the comfort level of the regions rather than too specific numbers. (Wurman gets grouchy when confronted by too much precision.)

Beyond the very useful advice, the book is built on a profound appreciation for something often overlooked, the wonder of conversation. Conversation is Wurman's model for turning information into knowledge, for seeking and finding. ``Unlike almost all machinery,'' he writes, ``conversations can tune themselves. We make adjustments, simplify, repeat, and move between various levels of complexity based on continuous feedback - a quarter-inch nod of a chin, the lowering or raising of eyes, strange guttural noises that say, `uh-huh, uh-huh,' blinks, shrugs, turns of the head, loss of eye contact, the making of eye contact. A symphony of signals occurs during even the briefest of conversations.''

``There is nothing we do better than when we do conversation well.''

Wurman is not a punctilious stylist but will be read nonetheless because what he says matters so much to so many.

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