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On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation Paperback – April 15, 2014
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"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)
Top customer reviews
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!
Here's some of what I really liked about the book:
-- The expert walk vignettes are very engaging, and Horowitz has a beautifully poetic writing style. The book is a joy to read. I finished it in two sittings, one of them late into the night. This is thriller-level readability, folks.
-- The experts really do have super x-ray vision in their domains. Their vision is so different, in fact, that when you enter their world, you feel as if you're moving around in a virtual reality overlay of a whole new dimension. Plants, animals, insects, rocks, letters, sounds you had never considered, all rise to attention's surface in 3-D relief.
-- The book is a bounty of fun esoteric facts: Raccoons can fit through a four-inch hole; squirrels, a quarter-size one; mice, dime-sized. The word "thigmotaxic" rocks. Instead of teeth, slugs have a "radula", a jagged tongue-like thing that leaves spiral marks on tree bark. Dogs first smell with the right nostril, then with the left once a scent becomes familiar.
-- The experts themselves are delightful characters. The mixture of their quirkiness and deep expertise makes you wish you could sit down for coffee with each and every one of them. Since that's probably not going to happen, we're lucky to have this book.
What I didn't like about the book:
-- It contains mistakes -- unpardonable mistakes of the kind that should get an editor fired. If you are keen-scented, you are macrosmatic, not macrosomatic (which means you have a bigger than normal body). You can have an obstructed bronchus, but not an obstructed bronchi. You don't have a mitrial valve, but you do have a mitral one. Concentric is a word; coencentric isn't. These would be minor lapses elsewhere, but in a book that is equal parts literature and science, they throw a faint light of doubt on everything else the author says. I picked up these mistakes because it's stuff I happened to study in school. Are there similar mistakes in the chapters on geology, zoology and acoustics that I would never catch? It makes the whole book feel slightly unreliable. I'm hoping they fixed these in the paperback edition.
-- The title promises "eleven walks with expert eyes." Two of the walks happen to be with the author's toddler son and her dog. While I will not challenge the kid and dog's expertise in the domains of kidhood and dogdom, I do doubt their ability to convey their perceptions to us accurately and fluently. In fact, I suspect the words come from the mom/owner. It's a fun conceit, and it almost works: the exercise of looking through the eyes of a kid and a dog are worthwhile. But I can do that myself any day: the words are not from the experts themselves. Either call the book "nine walks with expert eyes, with two bonus walks with my kid and dog thrown in for kicks", or give me two more real experts - a photographer, an historian, a physicist, an architect.
-- The promise of the book is to expand our vision: walks with expert eyes, sometimes "eyes" being a legitimate metaphor for non-visual perceptual domains like sound or smell. But above all, this is a book about the visual world. And Horowitz does a masterful job of describing the complexity her experts convey.
But where are the pictures?!? Yes, there are a few impressionistic doodles of a mouse, a turning head and a flock of birds, and there's a lovely print of Maira Kalman's blue couch painting (meaning that the publishers are fully capable of putting perfectly nice color photos in the book, and still didn't). But as I was reading, I was dying to see the pictures. No number of words can properly convey the difference between basalt, granite and schist in a way that would give me 0.1% of the expertise of the book's geologist, Sidney Horenstein. I want to actually SEE the bryozoans and the crinoids in the limestone so I can spot them when *I'm* walking around Manhattan. I want to see a Trendelenburg gait. Show me a darn picture of the typefaces, egg cases, exuviae, galls, mounds, nests you're describing so they come to life and I can recognize them, too. Isn't that the whole point of the book?
And where are the videos? If Proust had a video camera, he totally would have used it for his books. So in the year 2013, there's no reason for us to limit ourselves to mere words when you can stick a few 2-minute videos in an enhanced ebook (e.g. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which *is* a book for the ages, does this very effectively). Especially if a book is about walks: take me on a video walk! If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a million. Even with her considerable verbal skill, Horowitz's words (or anyone's, for that matter) cannot ever succeed in describing human gait in a way that can compete with the instant, massive processing power of the human visual system. Here was an opportunity not only for effective pedagogy, but also for making this book a classic for the ages instead of just entertainment. Also, if you're listening, Mr Simon and Mr Schuster: books with pictures sell more because people like `em. More pictures next time, please.
In the end, the book is still delightful, and I can see myself picking it up and re-reading sections for years to come. At the same time, I can't help but feel that there was a missed opportunity for this book to be an even more epic adventure - one that not only entertains, but also truly broadens our vision and understanding as humans.
-- Ali Binazir, M.D., M.Phil., Happiness Engineer and author of "The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman's Guide to Being Absolutely Irresistible", the highest-rated dating book on Amazon for 157 weeks
PS: I see that in the paperback edition they have changed the subtitle to "A Walker's Guide to the Art of Observation", which mitigates some of my objections. Hoping they made the corrections, too.
Her first companion was her 19-month old toddler who took her on a journey around her block in Manhattan. “Part of normal human development is learning to notice less than we are able to.” Young children sense the world differently, and notice what is new. Her next walking companion was a geologist, who described the city as geology unearthed. Then came the typographer. “Words are the ample cleavage of the urban environment: impossible not to look at.” Followed by an ultra-social illustrator, then an entomologist, a wildlife specialist, an urban sociologist, an expert in sounds. Each expert gave Horowitz a crash course in his or her field, and the author provides the reader with the same. The last two walks were with her dog, Finnegan, and one by herself to notice all she had been missing. “A simple walk has become unrecognizably richer.”
The reasons we don’t notice so much in our environment have to do with where we pay attention and what we expect to see. “Expectation magically sorts the world into things-we-are-looking-for and things-we-are-not.” We all have a powerful confirmation bias, which is why it can be hard to change our minds since we are much quicker to notice evidence to justify our beliefs than to contradict them. In and Q & A at the end of the book, Horowitz recommends that those of us without experts to guide us seek variety in our walking routes. “Take the longcut.”
On Looking is easy to read, and it’s interesting to learn about urban flora and fauna, as well as other things in our outdoor environment. Readers of this book will have renewed respect for Sherlock Holmes in paying closer attention to the obvious. ###