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On Looking: A Walker's Guide to the Art of Observation [Kindle Edition]

Alexandra Horowitz
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)

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Book Description

From the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Inside of a Dog, this “elegant and entertaining” (The Boston Globe) explanation of how humans perceive their environments “does more than open our eyes...opens our hearts and minds, too, gently awakening us to a world—in fact, many worlds—we’ve been missing” (USA TODAY).

Alexandra Horowitz shows us how to see the spectacle of the ordinary—to practice, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it, “the observation of trifles.” Structured around a series of eleven walks the author takes, mostly in her Manhattan neighborhood, On Looking features 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. Horowitz 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.

Page by page, Horowitz shows how much more there is to see—if only we would really look. Trained as a cognitive scientist, she discovers a feast of fascinating detail, all explained with her generous humor and self-deprecating tone. So turn off the phone and other electronic devices and be in the real world—where strangers communicate by geometry as they walk toward one another, where sounds reveal shadows, where posture can display humility, and the underside of a leaf unveils a Lilliputian universe—where, indeed, there are worlds within worlds within worlds.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

It is charming to take a walk with Horowitz. Engaging, amusing, and relatable, the psychology professor guides readers through 11 urban walks in the company of various experts. Beyond simply looking, this is about what makes up the world around us and the foundations of human perception. Horowitz brings the same attention to the human brain as she brought to our canine companions in Inside of a Dog (2010). She makes cognitive functioning eminently understandable by unraveling the role expectation plays in limiting what we see. The experts she walks with, from scientists to a toddler and a dog, reveal the underpinnings of a wide range of urban phenomena, such as the uncanny ability of rats to avoid traps. The descriptions of the walks are detailed but not overlong, with just enough information to give a taste of a geologist’s or typographer’s expertise. Even when relying only on your own inexpert eyes, you will look at the world with more attention after reading these fascinating essays, though it’s likely you still won’t be able to find millennia-old worm tracks or recognize the fishlike behavior of pedestrians. --Bridget Thoreson


"Elegant and entertaining." (Boston Globe)

"Alexandra Horowitz does more than open our eyes in On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. She opens our hearts and minds, too, gently awakening us to a world — in fact, many worlds — we've been missing...The pages hum and shine as a result, warmly reflecting the author's genuine enthusiasm for her work and its revelations." (USA Today)

"A refreshing celebration of the rewards of trying to see the world through the eyes of others.” (Chicago Tribune)

"Insightful." (Publishers Weekly)

“Engaging, amusing, and relatable…”


“Horowitz writes like a poet, thinks like a scientist, and ventures like an explorer. Her book will have you looking in a new way at the world around you, and make you glad you did.” (Susan Orlean author of Rin Tin Tin)

"These eleven exquisite, clever and and tenderly recounted small adventures remind me of something I learned back when I lived in India: the need to perceive "the scent behind the smell." Alexandra Horowitz has attempted much the same thing with her eyes - much aided by the seeing of others - and has in consequence become increasingly successful in perceiving what one might call "the sight behind the scene." Her resulting epiphanies are available to us all, if we take care to learn from her, in this lovely book, just how it is done." (Simon Winchester author of The Map that Changed the World)

"Alexandra Horowitz's new book is as wonderful as her first. Inside of a Dog helped us to imagine the worlds of our beagles, collies, greyhounds and mutts. On Looking teaches us that the world is just as rich, strange and charmed when seen through the eyes of our local artists, doctors, architects and toddlers. On Looking also teaches us that Alexandra Horowitz is a writer to watch." (Jonathan Weiner author of Beak of the Finch)

“Undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year, if not the decade, and the most enchanting thing I’ve read in ages.” (Maria Popova, Brain Pickings)

Product Details

  • File Size: 7140 KB
  • Print Length: 325 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 147112620X
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (January 8, 2013)
  • Sold by: Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008J4N5ZQ
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #226,823 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful and mind-expanding January 25, 2013
At first glance, you might think that this book's premise is a bit of a stretch. But in taking walks with experts in sociology and geology, a physician, a sound designer, and even the artist Maira Kalman, Horowitz brings a sense of wonder to the simple act of observation and perception. She gives cognitive science a good name--and more importantly, she makes it fun.
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eye Opening January 31, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
On Looking is a very intelligently written book. There is a saying that 'some people see more in a walk around the block then others see in a trip around the world'. This book reminds us that for the most part we see only what we expect to see. That is why it is so easy to hide something in plain view! It also reminds us that for the most part we sleep walk through our day - which isn't always a bad thing.
The author takes walks with experts in geology or sound production or insects and finds that these people are aware of things that she is not - not unless they point them out to her.
The world is full of sights, sounds, smells, textures, spaces, and invisible winds just to name a few. This books allows one to sample some of the unseen, unheard, un-felt magnificence the outside world has to offer most of all because it reminds us that MORE is OUT THERE!
This book is interesting and well written. The only dull walk the author takes us on is the first one where she does a solo trip around the block. After that the book is quite special! Enjoy!
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41 of 45 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great concept, disappointing execution November 16, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
"Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world," said Schopenhauer. So what's the cure? It could have been this book. The author walks with experts and ordinary people who have a variety of perspectives to see what they notice and how they perceive an urban landscape.

Unfortunately, the promise of the book wasn't fulfilled. For example, Ms. Horowitz walks with a doctor who claims to be able to give a medical diagnosis of a stranger based on that person's physical appearance, gait, and other attributes.

But Ms. Horowitz only reports the doctor's assessment of two pedestrians: one who needs a hip replacement and another who may have an unspecified genetic problem. Instead of focusing on her walking companion and his observations, the author writes about mirror neurons in monkeys, a certain "look" that she feels is characteristic of Philadelphians, and a previous walk she took with a physical therapist. The chapter on urban wildlife was equally disappointing.

Moreover the book is repetitious. In describing the walk she took with a blind woman Ms. Horowitz describes the hazards of pedestrians chatting on their cell phones SEVEN different times.

I did learn a few things, so it wasn't a complete waste of time. Three stars.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I cannot get enthusiastic May 6, 2013
By algo41
A blurb on the back of my book quotes Susan Orlean as saying: "Horowitz writes like a poet, thinks like a scientist .....". I would agree, but cannot get enthusiastic about this book. The poetry is not pervasive enough to consistently enliven what is often dull. The science rarely answer questions a walker already has. It can be stimulating, but if the science were extracted, it would add up to one author's survey of popular science - in that format the reader could more easily skip sections based on interest or previous exposure, and perhaps the articles would go into more depth.

Horowitz is very likable, and I did learn some interesting things. Chapters I particularly enjoyed were walking with a toddler, walking with a geologist (although this chapter really suffered from a lack of pictures), and walking with a blind person. Perhaps all parents with young children should read the toddler chapter. The chapter on urban animals covered a subject I am deeply interested in but it was disappointing - perhaps the walk should have been done at night, when we learn encounters would have been more likely, and perhaps there is just not enough known (Horowitz is told by her expert that there is surprisingly little known about wild rats, for example). One question which was answered: pigeons bob their heads to gain depth perception, compensating for a physiological lack; but how do they find enough to eat, when they spend so much time pecking at sidewalks which have no apparent food spillage?

The material on walking in crowds is better read in the original (a chapter or two in William H. Whyte's "City: Rediscovering the Center"). I have to disagree with Alexandra's conclusion that walkers with mobile phones are a particular problem: it is counter intuitive, but they seem to look up frequently enough, and make enough early adjustments, so that even mild collisions seem very rare.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very eye-opening! January 26, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Written with a great sense of humor and a huge dose of curiosity, I enjoyed this book immensely. Purchased with a trip to NYC in mind (the site of the author's "Onlooking"), I am enjoying the approach immediately in my own home and neighborhoods!
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bringing Attention to our Inattention February 18, 2013
A woman walks around New York with strangers: looking for people with unhealthy gaits, turning over leaves to find parasitized flies, and critiquing unseemly awning lettering. Alexandra Horowitz takes walks with both experts--among them a geologist and a sound engineer--and with amateurs--among them her nineteen month-old son and a blind woman--to see her everyday world with new eyes.

In the narrative Horowitz states, "Sometimes we see least the things we see most." Through her walks the author brings attention to our inattention. In our world of social networking, we are often not present in the spaces we move through. Horowitz uses the expertise of her co-strollers to illustrate the wisdom of age-old maxims about being aware and living in the present moment. Some passages contain excellent scientific descriptions, such as why birds sing at dawn, and then Horowitz effortlessly turns to vivid prose that captures the imagery and simple beauty of the flight of pigeons.

In On Looking, Horowitz wrote a narrative that reads like Malcolm Gladwell infused with eastern philosophy. Although everyone could benefit from the lessons Horowitz presents, the book will best serve those readers perceptive enough to realize their current lack of perception.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Honestly, this books sounded so interesting, but I've ...
Honestly, this books sounded so interesting, but I've had it for almost a year and haven't gotten past the 4th chapter. Very repetitive.
Published 3 days ago by Seth
5.0 out of 5 stars good
Published 1 month ago by Eduardo M Capitani
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
It's a gift I hope he loves it
Published 2 months ago by Vickie Mattox
5.0 out of 5 stars On Looking, On Seeing
Horowitz teaches us how to better "see" what we look at daily. Clever, insightful, refreshing essays.
Published 2 months ago by Ronald Powers
5.0 out of 5 stars I loved this book
I loved this book. Horowitz observes the big and the small on her NYC block with expert, and her own opened eyes. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Jennifer
4.0 out of 5 stars Seeing is believing
Not a book primarily for writers but every writer should read this book to increase their understanding of ther power of observation.
Published 2 months ago by Sharon Hampton
5.0 out of 5 stars Will read it again and recommend it.
very interesting idea. Will read it again and recommend it.
Published 3 months ago by Sarah
1.0 out of 5 stars This book is dull as dishwater
This book is dull as dishwater. i made it halfway through and finally threw it in recycling bin. I had hoped to be enlightened to the "art of observation" in my everyday... Read more
Published 3 months ago by nunya
2.0 out of 5 stars This book has a wonderful premise, but fails to deliver on it chapter...
This book has a wonderful premise, but fails to deliver on it chapter after chapter. Horowitz's prose is tied up in the cutesy, unnecessary flourish of an amateur writer at the... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Dan
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars
It was just a boring book. There is a good message, but definitely not for my taste.
Published 5 months ago by closrks
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More About the Author

Alexandra Horowitz is the author of the #1 New York Times best-selling "Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know". She teaches psychology, animal behavior, and canine cognition at Barnard College, Columbia University. In New York City, Alexandra walks with her husband, the writer Ammon Shea, her son, and two large, non-heeling dogs.

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