Alexandra Horowitz: On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (Nonfiction; Scribner, 2013)

In this book, I aimed to knock myself awake. I took that walk “around the block”—an ordinary activity engaged in by everyone nearly every day—dozens of times with people who have distinctive, individual, expert ways of seeing all the unattended, perceived ordinary elements I was missing. Together, we became investigators of the ordinary, considering the block—the street and everything on it—as a living being that could be observed.
In this way, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the old the new.…What follows is the record of eleven walks around the block I took with expert seers, who told me what they saw.

I was looking for something to read: an “interim read.” Something quick, something light, to break up my recent intense streak of emotionally intense and/or intellectually challenging coursework reading. The stars aligned, and I happened to notice a Brain Pickings post on this book. It sounded fascinating: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, read the subtitle. Perfect – a quick, light, purely fun read.

And it was a fun read, very much so – but it also sent me scurrying to google Clochan na bhFomharach, a volcanic formation in Northern Ireland consisting of thousands of columns of basalt pushed out of the ground. And that’s just in a footnote. I learned more than I ever imagined about the swooping patterns of bird flocks, and, for an embarrassingly long time, pondered the possibilities of a sentence which included the evocative phrase, “the Washington [DC] sewer, which sweeps away the excreta of some of the country’s most powerful people.”

A “walk,” according to my toddler, is regularly about not walking. It has nothing to do with points A, B, or the getting from one to the other. It barely has anything to do with planting one’s feet in a straight line. A walk is, instead, an investigatory exercise that begins with energy and ends when (and only when) exhausted.… A walk is exploring surfaces and textures with finger, toe, and – yuck – tongue; standing still and seeing who or what comes by; trying out different forms of locomotion (among them running, marching, high kicking, galloping, scooting, projectile falling, spinning, and noisy shuffling). It is archaeology: exploring the bit of discarded candy wrapper; collecting a fist full of pebbles and a twig or torn corner of paperback; swishing dirt back and forth along the ground.… It is a time of sharing.

What surprised me most was how enchanted I was by the second chapter: “Muchness,” guided by the expert eyes of Horowitz’ 19-month-old son. I’m fairly immune to the charms of children, but this was engaging and informative. Horowitz is trained in cognitive science and teaches animal behavior at Barnard, and here she weaves nuggets from developmental psychology in to explain her son’s adoption of a standpipe as a pet, and his reaction to shadows.

Minerals and Biomass,” her walk with geologist Sidney Horenstein of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, is when I got curious about volcanic leftovers in Northern Ireland. “Flipping Things Over” featured field naturalist Charley Eiseman and insect life; I confess, I’m not a fan of insects, no matter how interesting they are, so I didn’t spend much time here. Horowitz also ventured “Into the Fourth Dimension” with artist Maira Kalman, who provided some of the art for the book; this walk lent itself to an examination of the evolutionary value of eye contact.

Since I went crazy over Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, it makes sense one of my favorite walks, “Minding our Qs,” was guided by typographer Paul Shaw, who observed typefaces everywhere. But Horowitz puts her spin on this as well, delving into the perception of letters as objects and not linguistic symbols. She also comes to appreciate the more humanistic qualities sometimes attributed to fonts:

An O, squished between an S and N, looked “uncomfortable.” Another letter was “jaunty.” In prose and speech, Shaw appropriated the language of the human body to highlight anything unusual about the characters he found: an ampersand was “pregnant”; an R “long-legged”; and an S “high-waisted.” On the web, lettering and typography discussion boards sprinkle animistic characterizations among the professional jargon: an S is “a bit depressed,” another is “complacent”; an R “curtsies,” a G is “tipsy”, a J “suicidal”; one letter design “needs more humanisticness.”

Other walks were just as interesting, each in its own way. A walk with a blind woman led into a discussion of compensatory sense development, which has its roots in neuroscience. A sound engineer noticed sounds that Horowitz had long screened out as irrelevant; she differentiates between sound and noise (“a sound we don’t like is noise”) and talks about the so-called “diabolical chord,” the augmented fourth, that I mentioned a few weeks ago on a Project Runway recap of all things. Another of my favorite walks was with a physician, who diagnosed passers-by; while it is a bit creepy to realize someone may be evaluating your health while you’re going about your business on any given day, gait and physiognomy are very revealing to someone who both knows what to look for, and pays attention.

And that is, at its heart, what the book is about: paying attention. Sprinkled throughout are results of fascinating experiments: observers of basketball practice who, when told they’d be tested on the number of baskets thrown, didn’t even notice an elaborately-dressed gorilla mascot, for example. It isn’t necessarily about having expert knowledge or a particular field of interest, it’s also about the evolutionary advantage of screening out overloads of input. Focus is quite efficient when the objective is to get from point A to point B. But sometimes it’s fun to see what’s there along the way.

You can take a brief walk with Horowitz via the trailer available at the publisher’s website. This book was just the break I wanted: an almanac of captivating anecdotes which will stick with me – and who knows, maybe one day I’ll take a walk, myself.

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2 responses to “Alexandra Horowitz: On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (Nonfiction; Scribner, 2013)

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