“On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes” by Alexandra Horowitz

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A book highly recommended by the wonderful brainpickings.org (www.brainpickings.org – get yourself on their mailing list, if you’re not already!) in which the author takes a walk around her block with 10 different specialists who offer insights into what they are seeing when they observe their surroundings. Each specialist gives a fascinating insight into how each individual sees the world in their own peculiar way based on their tastes, profession, mentality and each offers the author and the reader a new way of seeing the world around us. With inspiration quotes from the likes of Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes and Henry David Thoreau to back her up, Horowitz attempts to open our eyes to the world around us so that we become aware of the wealth of fascinating information that surrounds us wherever we go.

She begins alone, traipsing around the block with humane solipsism that convinces her she is already taking in the majority of information that is available to her during her walk. What else is to seen? First up is trained geologist Sidney Horenstein who offers a truly fascinating geological landscape of the city. One rock is six million years old and was formed on the other side of the globe while the rock lying just beside it is just a baby at ten thousand years old and originating just down the road in Texas. We learn how Horenstein is able to draw out such caverns of information simply by looking at the colour and texture of the rock. Next we meet Paul Shaw who offers a typographical landscape of the city. It is initially amusing but strangely fascinating to see how different typefaces can dictate his emotions. One typeface, with ‘bad spacing’ or some other defect will make him shudder, while another with lovely Art Nouveau curves will see him utter gasp with pleasure: ‘this is really cool’. Suddenly Horowitz becomes aware of the omnipresence of type; on signs, on buildings, wrappers on the floor, on the t-shirts of passers-by. A typographers dream. Or nightmare.

Shaw is followed by Maira Kelman, an illustrator who is intrigued by old furniture and ‘ordinary’ art. A bohemian-like figure, Kelman meanders the streets led simply by what interests her. She is also noticeably ouvert, initially startling for Newarker Horowitz who seems set to city default-mode of ‘keep yourself to yourself, eyes down, walk and talk to no-one’. Kelman instead openly enters spaces Horowitz wouldn’t normally enter which leads to actually real human contact. O M G.

Next Charley Eiseman, a naturalist and bug-lover, showcases the life of bugs in the city. He reveals all the nooks and crannies where bugs spend their urban lives by finding their remains; nests, corpses, webs, shed skin, etc. Our awareness of animal life in the city is widened by John Hadidian, senior scientist in the Wildlife division of the human society, who describes how the city-space is teeming with a variety of creatures, which thrive during the night hours. He gives a captivating account of how these animals, including racoons, foxes & dogs, have been forced to adapt and evolve to city life in order to be able to co-exist alongside the ‘galumphing effects’ of humans. These very effects are revealed to us by Fred Kent, the president of the project for public spaces, who studies human behaviour in urban spaces. His profession allows him to predict human behaviour on his walk with Horowitz, including trends in how people cross roads with their ‘side and slide’ movements or how the ‘platoons’ of people march along the New York streets without constantly crashing into one another.

The seventh walker is Dr Bennett Lorber, compared to Conan Arthur Doyle’s inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, who is deemed to be a lover of minutiae and a teacher of Medicine and Temple University. Dr Lorber has a knack for diagnosing people’s illnesses simply by observing their gait in the street; for example, he says, a walk with a waddle may point to a muscular problem. During their walk he seems to be able to identify people with all sorts of diagnoses with solely his observational powers. Dr Lober is followed by probably my favourite walker, Arlene Gordon. An avid traveller, Gordon has travelled all over the globe and fondly recalls her gallivanting with the souvenirs in her home. An extraordinary feat considering she has spent the last 42 years of her life visionless. Horowitz describes how Gordon’s other senses have benefitted and ameliorated because of her blindness, which has allowed her to form vivid memories of her travels through her sense of hearing and smell and descriptions of the sights by her friends.

Hearing is also the focus of sound designer Scott Lehrer who offers Horowitz a soundscape of the city and to try to hear the noises ‘behind their names’, in and for themselves. I found in this chapter however that it was still the memory of Arlene Gordon which forced me to reflect the soundscape of a large city like New York.  The final guest is a young chap named Finnegan who leads us down a path to the world of city odours and taste. Finnegan is a dog, and happily scurries around below our line of vision with his snout constantly at work, sniffing life into the world around him. The author explains how we too have millions of smell receptors, not as many as dogs, but enough for her to bemoan how little we make the most of our capabilities, ‘we are limited by our sensory abilities, by our species membership, by our narrow attention… We walk the same block as dogs yet see different things…[and are] captured instead by the inside of our own heads.’

The author concludes her book with a final solitary walk around the block with her new observational capabilities, reflecting on her findings. She discusses how mankind is plagued by our own expectations and only see what we want to see. ‘In a sense, expectation is the lost cousin of attention: both serve to reduce what we need to process of the world “out there”. Attention is the more charismatic member, packaged and sold more effectively, but expectation is also a crucial part of what we see. Together they allow us to be functional, reducing the sensory chaos of the world into unbothersome and understandable units’. Her final walk gives the sense of the end of the journey. At the same time it is cyclical, reminding the reader of her initial walk, and will be continued by the reader in his/her own day-to-day life (in theory at least). Despite this self-helpesque message, I found the book to genuinely affect my perceptions of the world. As I read each chapter, I found myself become more interesting in looking at patterns in rocks, different typefaces and bug remains between gaps in walls.

The book does have a meaningful message. Your experience of life depends on how you use your senses, how you see the world. Make sure you use them to truly have a full, vibrant experience of the world around you. As Ruskin said: “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, — all in one.”

Blurb : From the author of the giant #1 New York Times bestseller Inside of a Dog comes an equally smart, delightful, and startling exploration of how we perceive and discover our world.

Alexandra Horowitz’s brilliant On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes shows us how to see the spectacle of the ordinary—to practice, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it, “the observation of trifles.” On Looking is structured around a series of eleven walks the author takes, mostly in her Manhattan neighborhood, with experts on a diverse range of subjects, including an urban sociologist, the well-known artist Maira Kalman, a geologist, a physician, and a sound designer. She also walks with a child and a dog to see the world as they perceive it. What they see, how they see it, and why most of us do not see the same things reveal the startling power of human attention and the cognitive aspects of what it means to be an expert observer. See more at: http://books.simonandschuster.com/On-Looking/Alexandra-Horowitz/9781439191255#sthash.gLvUqz5D.dpuf

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