This is the fourth of Edward Tufte's books on the graphical display of information, and one might fear that he might be stretching the point too far and running out of ideas. One would be wrong, however, because this is a wonderful book, and is possibly the best of the four. It is a must-have, must-read, must-understand, must-apply sort of book. No one who is seriously interested in preparing illustrations for conveying information can afford to be unfamiliar with Tufte's ideas.
Inevitably there is some overlap with the earlier books, but this is deliberate policy, not carelessness. As Tufte makes clear, it is better to repeat information than to expect readers to hunt for it somewhere else. Many potentially useful books have been rendered much more difficult to use than they ought to be, at worst by gathering together the artwork in one place, far away from the text that it relates to, or, slightly less bad, by failing to ensure that it appears on the same double-page spread as its accompanying text. Tufte doesn't even believe in referring to tables and figures by numbers, because he considers that any illustration can just be introduced with "here" or "in this example", etc., if it is properly placed. This is what he practises himself, but the technical demands of commercial publishers will make it difficult advice to follow, unfortunately. However, with modern computer-based publishing it ought to become easy in the future if enough pressure is put on publishers. If Galileo could integrate all of his diagrams into his text, why can we not do that now, with far more technical aids at our disposal than were available to him?
The main new idea that appears in Beautiful Evidence is the description of sparklines: small, data-intense, word-like graphics -- word-like in the sense that a sparkline can appear right in the middle of a sentence, but can contain the equivalent of hundreds of numbers. Sparklines are ideal for conveying time series, such as a series of blood-glucose measurements for a diabetes patient. With suitable shading they can indicately instantly whether the measurements fall within the normal ranges.
Tufte's short pamphlet about the presentation software PowerPoint, previously available as a separate publication, now appears as a chapter in Beautiful Evidence. His main points are that PowerPoint slides are typically so low in information-content that they insult the audiences they are directed towards, and that bulleted lists of slogans are just a pretence at supplying real arguments.
Charles Joseph Minard's map of Napoleon's invasion of Russia already played a prominent role in the first book in the series, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, and it reappears here, with a whole chapter devoted to analysing it. This is space well used, because to emulate Minard it is essential to go beyond a casual appreciation of his work as excellent; it demands a careful analysis of what it is that makes it excellent.