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Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places Paperback – April 1, 1999

4.0 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

What lies along the highway, just out of sight? How about behind that building? Or under the street? Most of us muse idly about such things as we take our walks or drive our cars, but only a few go further and explore the secret histories of the places where we live. Landscape historian John R. Stilgoe is one of these intrepid explorers; for years he has taught Harvard students to open their senses to the created environment we share, to gently dissect our neighborhoods and public spaces for the knowledge hidden in plain sight. In Outside Lies Magic, he lets us all in on these wonderful secrets.

Guiding us on tracks laid by utility and railroad companies, showing us the hidden territory of postal systems, Stilgoe reminds us that important frontiers lie invisible in our backyards and side streets, waiting for our attention. Though more interested in showing us how to see than telling us what there is to see, his descriptions of power-line right-of-ways, alley-side entrances, and hobo jungles provide compelling incentive for the reader to take his advice to heart and start looking around and asking questions of the community. If you think it's important to "think locally," Outside Lies Magic is an outstanding training manual. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845, Stilgoe brilliantly traced the history and the meaning of man's imprint on the American environment. His new book, as informal and chatty as Common Landscape was scholarly, looks at the physical state of America today and encourages his readers to become "Explorers": unhurried, clear-eyed observers of the world they rush through. The book is wildly unevenAthe section on motels, for instance, does little more than belabor the obviousAand the repeated refrain to Open Your Eyes and Look Around becomes hectoring, but when Stilgoe lets his imagination run free, the results can become breathtaking. The chapter on interstate highways touches on such things as what's written on the backs of signs, the dirt tracks that parallel expressways, roadkill and what happens to it and what seemingly random patches of wild flowers may really signify. Perhaps the best chapter deals with fences and other ways people draw lines across the landscape to mark boundaries or create the illusion of privacy. Stilgoe calls this a "straightforward guidebook to exploring" whose purpose borders on the evangelical, but it's the sort of book that makes the reader want to buttonhole anyone handy and say, "Listen to this."
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Walker Books (April 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802775632
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802775634
  • Product Dimensions: 4.4 x 0.5 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #227,867 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book should please anyone who enjoys spending time walking, in-line skating, or bicycling around the margins of the landscape that Americans have crafted (and often later abandoned or forgotten) during the last few centuries. Stilgoe seems to believe that such casual observation is a far rarer pastime than I suspect it is (and perhaps that it should be less a mere pastime than a virtuous calling).
That doubtless accounts for the excess of zeal that I think has crept into his text. Stilgoe is unquestionably right, however, that further inquiry into the little puzzles encountered in these marginal landscapes will reward anyone with a mildly inquisitive bent. Stilgoe himself rewards the reader with insights into the interplay of diverse forces that can be read in the patina of an inhabited landscape (e.g., the less-than-obvious relationship between a townscape of tree-lined streets and an economic base sufficient to support municipal fire-suppression services).
I doubt that Stilgoe was trying to prescribe a program of action to "rescue" or "restore" the landscape, or in fact to do anything but to "regain awareness," as the subtitle puts it.
Should this book be the start for a reader interested in such things? The story that Stilgoe tells about the experience of close observation should make it an accessible beginning. But some readers might wish to begin with one of the other writers and scholars closely associated with observation of the American landscape, e.g.
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By A Customer on July 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
A thought-provoking introduction to reading the built environment by close observation. However, Stilgoe's attitude is a bit elitist. The "explorer" in his parlance is vastly superior to us ordinary humans. I don't think as few people as he imagines pay attention to the edges and fringes of highways, strip malls and industrial parks.
The thing that really threw me? He twice mentions "Fragmenties", an invasive introduced plant. Unless fragmenties is a really localized phenomenon - localized to where Stilgoe bicycles only, I think he's referring to Phragmites a native grass gone invasive at least partly due to reduced salinity in salt marshes cut off from the twice daily tidal flooding. So, take what he says with a grain of salt and check other references.
If you want inspiration to go out there and look around in the urban clutter to see what's really there, try One Square Mile on the Atlantic Coast: An Artist's Journal of the New Jersey Shore by John R. Quinn.
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Format: Hardcover
John Stilgoe once again captures the imagination of the reader and encourages us to truly "see", not just "inhabit" the world that lies all around us.
As in his other works, he teaches us that history and archaeology are not just a part of musty museums, but of the every day built environment. There is a history behind everything that we come across in our daily lives and he wants us to take a second as a child might and think about the environment in which we live.
Having had the opportunity to take classes he taught at Harvard, this book enabled me to reenter his world of delicate insight and deep knowledge about what many in our society simply overlook or have forgotten.
If you like pop culture, history, walking down forgotten railroad beds or simply enjoy driving down unknown roads, Stilgoe will capture you.
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By A Customer on November 30, 1999
Format: Paperback
Good introduction book on observing the world around us. It seems like there should be so much more written on this topic.
I recommend this book although I admit also that the writer's style can get to you sometimes (however, I wouldn't go so far as to say the author is overly pretentious).
Anyway, I also recommend "The Meadowlands" if you are interested in this type of book.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The fact that Stilgoe is a Harvard professor led me to presume that this book would have some factual content, in addition to the obvious exhortation to dreamily explore the built environment. This is not the case. The book is a rambling series of idle musings on the theme of "I wonder", with precious little information to substantiate or give grounding to questions of "the explorer." The narrative style is a huge annoyance too, with nearly every sentence outlining the putative thoughts going through the mind of " the explorer," Stilgoe's galling device for illuminating questions, often silly questions, about the woefully under-examined "outside." One final complaint concerns Stilgoe's self-aggrandizing description of his previous students' countless testimonials as to his tremendous positive influence on their perception and exploration of the world around them. Save it for the tenure committee, Prof. Stilgoe - not really appropriate here. If you're looking for a starting point in reading about the ordinary landscape, I'd start with J.B. Jackson's "Discovering the Vernacular Landscape" and skip this book entirely. Not recommended.
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