By Laura Castellano
Some people say she’s genius, that she’s got something really special. “Maybe a gene?” asks Stephen Dubner, one of the authors of the bestseller, “Freakonomics.” Most of her readers ponder how it is Jessica Hagy visually links ideas together in Venn diagrams, and other types of charts, in such a clever way.
She just sees things so differently. Readers often guess correctly she’s left-handed. They sometimes ask if she’s dyslexic; she’s not. Hagy’s not sure if it’s a gift, but she’s glad to have discovered her thing—that is, commenting on culture through, in her words, “mildly snarky” diagrams.
And she only had to look back to her middle school days in Ohio to find it.
“I think I learned Venn diagrams in seventh or eighth grade,” says Hagy, author of the new book, “Indexed.” “I hadn’t used them a lot before I started doing this. You sort of file them away like the capitals of all the states.”
Venn diagrams, unlike the state capitals, don’t require memorization so much as a broad understanding of the world. You have to know how to define relationships. Teenagers are notoriously good at labels. They’re good at forming groups, sometimes to a fault. Maybe that’s why they’re taught Venns at that age.
But Hagy, at 29, has gathered significantly more information about American culture than most teenagers. She works in the advertising industry. Perhaps it’s her research of our consumer culture that leads to her witty commentary in the form of index cards. But she says, the cards allowed her “to be way more clever.”
Hagy has contributed to the New York Times “Freakonomics” blog and often contributes to McClatchy (she saves some of her very political cards for them).
Dubner says that Hagy’s ability “lets her see the similarities in things that to most people’s naked eye would seem resolutely dissimilar.”
Jesus and Elvis, for example. Rice Krispies and arthritis. Rich old women and pimps.
The diagrams take a second, sometimes a handful of seconds, to fully understand. Sometimes the joke is not the odd relationship, but the curve of a line—the visual aspect of the graph. And, like the reaction to a good joke, a reading of her diagram usually follows with a chuckle and a slight sense of pride. And that’s because they’re smart and they make you feel smart, too. She takes from so many different areas of our culture that she has had to branch out in terms of types of diagrams used. Constellation graphs, pie charts, bar graphs and x-y graphs are now documented in her book and her blog.
If those sloping lines and x and y axes make you apprehensive, you’re not alone. Hagy freely admits that she uses her blog to “think a little more relationally without resorting to doing actual math.”
“I’ve always thought of myself as a words person,” she says. “All the sudden I’ve been cast as this math person.”
In addition to not being a math person, she never really thought of herself as the blogging type. As a freelance copywriter she thought it would be useful to have a blog, but didn’t want a “boring” one that detailed her everyday activities. “I was posting stuff because every writer needs a blog,” she says. “It’s kind of weird to think of myself as part of this Internet society.”
It was this society that led an agent to her in 2006, and the book deal with Penguin was finalized five months later. Now she draws her cards nightly. She does it for about half an hour before she goes to bed and usually finishes up to six cards. She has completed about 1,400 cards. About half make it to her blog and under a hundred made it into her book.
The chosen ones are punchy and subtle, but reactions are not always so subtle. Some of the diagrams make powerful political or religious statements, but even the seemingly innocent ones can elicit more than a chuckle. It just depends on the reader.
“I think everyone brings their own weirdness to it,” Hagy says. “They interpret in their own way.”
This “weirdness” shows up in some of the comments in her blog. In one diagram she suggests that rebellion is up when supervision is very low and very high (a parabola). Berfle the blogger comments: “Assuming the minimum is also the optimum, could this data perhaps be expressed in some form of third variable, let’s say sphinctericity (from the Rebellion perspective) or perhaps paranoia (from the Supervision perspective)…” And Kieran the blogger: “OMG, I work in student affairs at a Big Ten school—I have got to share this with all my staff! You rock!”
Maybe it’s genius, maybe she just rocks, but what Hagy does certainly takes talent. Let’s just leave the labeling to the expert.
Jessica Hagy presents her work on March 13 at Quimbys Bookstore, 1854 West North, (773)342-0910, at 7pm. Free.