Thursday 6 August 2015

On Looking

Finished July 31
On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz

This book began with the author realizing that she wasn't seeing her surroundings in many ways when she took walks in her neighbourhood. She began thinking about what she was missing, and sought out different people with different backgrounds, expertise, and interests to help her see her surroundings in different ways. She wanted to know what she was missing.
First she deliberately took a walk in her neighbourhood, taking notes on what she was noticing and her insights about those things. Some of the subsequent walks are in her own city of New York, but others are in the other cities, more convenient to the experts that she walked with.
Her first walk was with her toddler son, as she tried to let him guide the walk as much as possible and took note of what captured his interest, sometimes asking him questions to draw out what he was feeling or what appealed to him. She found, of course, that his perspective was different than hers, being closer to the ground and thus seeing things at that level more immediately. He was attracted to colours, shapes, and textures, wanting to experience his surroundings with fingers, feet, and sometimes his tongue.He noticed sounds and looked for their origins. He is fascinated with the new, things that weren't there on his last walk. He greeted and talked to objects along the route as if they were living creatures. He points, he stares, especially at people who seem unusual to him. He used a lot of nonverbal communication, gesturing and facial expressions. He was fascinated with his own shadow and the shadows of other things.
Her next walk was with a geologist, a man who often environmental outings within the city. She learns to recognize the different stones in the city, both those used in buildings and those in natural elements. She sees the fossil history in the stones and learns to recognize the signs of tools that were used in shaping the stones.
Next up is a typographer, a man who knows his fonts and the history of signage. This noticing looks at form and function, and seeing not only what signs look good, but why. Noticing the details of signage and recognizing mass-produced as opposed to hand-done. To see letters done artfully with thought to their purpose and placement and those done without.
She then walks with a friend who is an illustrator. They venture into open doors, stood on street corners, sat on benches. Her friend is a collector of the ordinary, drawing pictures of objects that take the ordinary and make them unique. They interacted with other people they encountered. Instead of just looking, they interacted with objects and people along their route, veering off when something caught their interest.
The next series of walks concentrated more on the animate. First, with a field naturalist specializing in insects and other invertebrates. Horowitz learned to recognize the signs of insect presence, to identify the traces that insects leave behind. This was another walk that veered off when something caught their interest nearby, on walls, in tree pits, on the leaves of trees and bushes, in dumpsters.
She then walks with a wildlife scientist, looking for signs of urban wildlife. From raccoons, rats, and squirrels to starlings, pigeons, and other birds, many animals live in cities. They adjust themselves to their environment, using tall buildings like cliff-faces, becoming active at night when humans are less active, finding paths between areas, and developing nooks and crannies as homes. Once they start looking they notice more signs of animal presence.
Her next walk is with a man who specializes in the use of urban space. He watches how people behave in spaces, how things like street furniture, sidewalk vendors and shop windows can slow people down. To him a good urban experience is one that encourages you to slow down and loiter. He studies the movement of people, how they move in groups, how people move when they meet others as they walk, the subtle dance of movement between strangers. She learns that there are three simple rules most of use abide by: avoid bumping into others, while staying comfortably close; follow whoever is in front of you; and keep up with those next to you. The rules boil down to avoidance, alignment and attraction, and explain the movement of groups not just in people but also other creatures. Without consciously realizing it, we all watch others and react to their movements. We slip and slide as we move past others coming towards us, we notice where others are moving towards and move to avoid their path, The advent of mobile devices has had an impact on this and they notice that too. People concentrating on devices don't participate in this dance, and create disruptions in movement. They notice divisions on the street, sidewalks, curbs, and other visible differences that influence how people move through an environment.
Her next companion is a doctor skilled in the practice of diagnosis by visual inspection. As they walk, he notes the slight differences in how people carry themselves, how they move, that are signs as to illnesses or physical injuries. He has worked with medical students, teaching them to really look at their patients to get clues as to who they are and what is important to them. They look at gait, the way clothing hangs, physical characteristics, smell, and sound.
She takes a walk with a blind woman, learning how she uses her other senses to help tell her what is around her. She can sense the movement of air to tell when she reaches an open space such as a street corner, and uses objects that she touches to orient herself in her surroundings. She uses her cane to tell her something about the tactile nature of the surface she is moving towards, and the sound of the taps to determine all surrounding surfaces.
Walking with a sound designer, she notes the difference between sound and noise. He talks about the differences between small sounds like tire noise that tell you whether the pavement is wet or dry. She learns how echoes reinforce sounds, and how different environments affect sounds in different ways. She learns how she physically feels some sounds, especially deeper rumbles.
She takes a walk with a dog to observe how it explores its environment, much of it based on smell. She noticed how the dog licked its nose to better sense upcoming smells, and how it started at the edge of smells, working inward.
For all of her walks she does additional research into the subject speciality, into the history of different inputs, into the science of it all.
This is a book that will change the way you take your own walks, at least for a while, as you open yourself up to new experiences.


  1. You find the most interesting books to read! And your reviews always make me want to read them, too. :)

  2. Thanks Lark. Glad you are enjoying them. Encouraging others to read books that interest them is all part of what I do. I'm glad it's working.