From the author of the giant No. 1 New York Times bestseller Inside of a Dog comes an equally smart, delightful, and startling exploration of how we discover our world. Alexandra Horowitz's brilliant On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes shows us how to see the spectacle of the ordinary-to practice, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it, "the observation of trifles." On Looking is structured around a series of eleven walks the author takes with experts on a diverse range of subjects, including an urban sociologist, an artist, a geologist, a physician, and a sound designer. She 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. As the million-plus readers of Inside of a Dog have discovered, Alexandra Horowitz is charmingly adept at explaining the mysteries of human perception. On Looking confirms her place as one of today's most illuminating observers of our infinitely complex world.
On Looking Amateur Eyes
You missed that. Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.
By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.
This ignorance is useful: indeed, we compliment it and call it concentration. Our ignorance/concentration enables us to not just notice the scrawls on the page but also to absorb them as intelligible words, phrases, ideas. Alas, we tend to bring this focus to every activity we do-not just the most complicated but also the most quotidian. To a surprising extent, time spent going to and fro-walking down the street, traveling to work, heading to the store or a child's (or one's own) school-is unremembered. It is forgotten not because nothing of interest happens. It is forgotten because we failed to pay attention to the journey to begin with. On the phone, worrying over dinner, listening to others or to the to-do lists replaying in our own heads, we miss the world making itself available to be observed. And we miss the possibility of being surprised by what is hidden in plain sight right in front of us.
It was my dog who prompted me to consider that these daily journeys could be done . . . better. Bring a well-furred, wide-eyed, sharp-nosed dog into your life, and suddenly you find yourself taking a lot of walks. Walks around the block, in particular. Over the last three decades, living with two dogs, my blocks have been classic city blocks-down the street and three right corners and home; they have been along sidewalked small towns and un-sidewalked, hilly villages. But what counted as a "block" was changeable. Heading out for what I imagined would be a quick circumnavigation, I often found myself led elsewhere by my dog: our "blocks" have become tours of city parks, zigzagging meanders through canyons, trots along the sides of highways, and, when we were lucky, down narrow forest paths.
After enough waylaid walks, I began trying to see what my dog was seeing (and smelling) that was taking us far afield. Minor clashes between my dog's preferences as to where and how a walk should proceed and my own indicated that I was experiencing almost an entirely different block than my dog. I was paying so little attention to most of what was right before us that I had become a sleepwalker on the sidewalk. What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see; what my dog showed me was that my attention invited along attention's companion: inattention to everything else.
This book attends to that inattention. It is not a book about how to bring more focus to your reading of Tolstoy or how to listen more carefully to your spouse. It is not about how to avoid falling asleep at a public lecture or at your grandfather's tales of boyhood misadventures. It will not help you plan dinner for eight as you listen to books-on-tape and as you consult the GPS-all while you are driving.
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, ex