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Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places
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Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places

3.65  ·  Rating Details ·  342 Ratings  ·  64 Reviews
Outside Lies Magic is a book about the acute observation of ordinary things, about becoming aware in everyday places, about seeing in utterly new ways, about enriching your life unexpectedly.
For more than 20 years, John R. Stilgoe has developed and practiced the art of exploring the everyday world around us, where so much lies hidden just beneath the surface, offering unco
Paperback, 208 pages
Published April 1st 1999 by Walker Books
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Oct 12, 2007 Foster rated it liked it
Shelves: policy
The jacket describes this book as being about “the acute observation of ordinary things.” Being a person more than a few have described as “observant”, I was curious to see what Professor Stilgoe had to say about being an everyday explorer.

Stilgoe is the Professor of Landscape History at Harvard, and was featured on 60 minutes a couple of years ago describing the art of exploration, which is the title of the course he teaches. While I didn’t watch the 60 minutes piece, I remembered his name as I
Howard Mansfield
Apr 02, 2012 Howard Mansfield rated it really liked it
Stilgoe’s enthusiasm leaps off the page. This is a swift, entertaining book, an optimistic book about the joys of looking at the world. Sign me up! I’d happily ramble around the city and country with him
Aaron Becker
Nov 20, 2009 Aaron Becker rated it it was amazing
"Outside Lies Magic" is an inspirational call to exploration. John Stilgoe, however, does not call upon the reader to leave home and explore distant lands; instead, he points out that many places nearby remain unexplored.
While it may seem strange for an author to find wonder in power lines and abandoned railroad tracks, Stilgoe provides a relatively freeform narrative that illustrates how places that most people overlook tell detailed stories of how people lived and worked in the past. Stilgoe'
Phillip Barron
Mar 07, 2011 Phillip Barron rated it it was amazing
You see more from a bicycle than you do from a car. You see even more from a balloon-tire Schwinn than you do from a carbon fiber Pinarello.

That’s why author John Stilgoe, in Outside Lies Magic, says to choose the cruiser.

“Bicycle to the store,” he says, “then ride down the alley toward the railroad tracks, bump across the uneven bricks by the loading dock grown up in thistle and chicory, pedal harder uphill toward the Victorian houses converted into funeral homes, make a quick circuit of the sc
May 06, 2012 Kathy rated it it was amazing
A wonderful book that explores the mundane and encourages us to get out and look at what we take for granted everyday. From the powerlines to mailboxes Stilgoe teaches us of the reason behind these everyday inventions and leads the reader to think about how these everyday conveniences have impacted the built environment.

I have told everyone important to me about this book and encourage everyone to read it. I found it fascinating. The sentence structure on occasions required a re-read of the pass
Mar 30, 2012 Sharon rated it really liked it
I'm actually re-reading this book. I first read it a few years ago and liked it very much, but couldn't recall the title or the author. I own a copy of another Stilgoe book titled "Train Time," and seeing it was enough to finally jog my memory. Leave the car at home. Walk or ride a bicycle. Look, really look, at the human-built environment.
Apr 13, 2014 Samuel rated it liked it
In his book Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, John R. Stilgoe demonstrates how “exploring” everyday landscapes can lead to interesting observations that can be coupled with research to gain understanding about history, society, and culture. Although there are no footnotes in his book, it is obvious by the way he moves from casual observation and musings to historical facts and specific examples that some amount of non-observational research is taking place ...more
Jul 16, 2015 Jessica rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Bryan Alka; urbanists; historians
Recommended to Jessica by: WPL Wed Book Discussion
Stilgoe's choice of making a hero out of the "explorer" in order to show us the places behind the highways is an interesting idea but the follow through is lacking. The language is terrible - sloppy and excessive sentence structure, strange turns of phrase, outdated word selection, unnecessary asides that distract the reader - making it very difficult to find the sentiment at the bottom of the word pile.

Just by way of example, follow this: "Behind almost all commercial strips the explorer moves
Jun 16, 2015 Marlan rated it liked it
I had mixed feelings reading this book.

This book is all about exploring America, and looking closer at those maybe-not-actually-mundane roads and parking lots and buildings and power lines and mailboxes. With a closer examination, these things can actually tell us loads about our cities and neighborhoods, about our urban planning and history.

On the one hand, like Stilgoe, I love exploring the backways and byways of America. Biking, walking, hiking, or otherwise wandering - I definitely agree tha
Sage Austin
Oct 09, 2012 Sage Austin rated it liked it
I picked this up at the library thinking it might give some ideas for outdoor field study for my husband's history classes. There is very little "magic" in this book at all--instead I felt the author's attempt to excite the potential "explorer" to study the history of industry through examination of manhole covers and telephone poles falls flat and made for a moderately tedious read.

Indeed, the author--presumably the cloyingly over-used "Explorer" with a capital E-- bicycles through the dissecti
May 11, 2013 Sharron rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: natural-history
I finished this book several days ago and I'm still not certain what to make of it. And I certainly can't recommend it to anyone I know because it is so utterly idiosyncratic. Witness the fact that its chapter headings include the following: lines, mail, strips, enclosures, interstates, main streets, stops. Unless you're a "road trip" sort of person, someone who really enjoys slowly exploring out of the way places, this is not to likely to be appealing. There are, admittedly, references to ...more
Oct 03, 2013 Sara rated it it was ok
I think this book would do much better if it was just the first and last chapters and skipped the chapters in between. i appreciated the call to explore and observe - there is certainly much to see within our surroundings that often is ignored. As someone who is interested in infrastructure, i initially found the discussion interesting. But i found the narrative he provided through the eyes of a hypothetical "explorer," superficial and full of unexplored assumptions. I found the discussion of ...more
Jun 13, 2013 Hesper rated it did not like it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
Filed under "they made me do it," meaning some professor had to pad his semester reading list. Which he did. With this flouncy piece of blissed out drivel, all because he and Stilgoe had a drink once and they MAN BONDED over taking walks and FEELING NOSTALGIC.

Yeah. Cronyism, I feel you.

Don't misunderstand: there is a point buried in here, about truly paying attention to the landscape and its story, and how mundane details, normally overlooked, reveal the history of place. However, there is also
Jan 11, 2009 stephanie rated it liked it
Not exactly a thrilling read, but a really good book for writing students. As we continue to live our lives at a faster and faster pace, whether that mean actual physical movement or simply the speed at which information travels, Stilgoe theorizes that what we have lost with all this speed is the ability to truly observe the world around us. Through very detailed description and exploration of the simple, every day world, Stilgoe takes the reader on a tour of observation. I say it would be a ...more
Mar 16, 2008 Steve rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
My rating mainly applies to the first parts of the book since I found them to be the strongest. Basically, this book asks you to look at the hidden world or structure around you. He covers things like all the wiring around us, the postal network, roads and other infrastructure we take for granted. It caused me to pay a lot more attention to things, and see if I could deduce what was going on. (For instance, figuring out which lines were cable and which were phone in my neighborhood.) The only ...more
Nov 14, 2011 Lexi rated it liked it
The opening essay of this book is lovely and very insightful. Unfortunately, to my taste, the author's sort of lyrical tone doesn't work well for the entire length of a book.
I think I would've liked this better if there were photos or at least drawings illustrating some of the author's points. And also if he'd done up a bibliography. I frankly had a hard time believing some of the points he makes that are meant to come across as shocking revelations. (I've had no luck finding information about
Apr 21, 2008 Amanda rated it it was ok
I had high hopes for this book. I think I heard a good review or an interesting interview with the author on NPR.

The better parts of the book made me aware of some of the underlying structure of cities, answering some "why" questions about things like utility lines and manhole covers — nice little things to notice while walking my dog.

But the interesting bits were buried in so many words! I finished it, but was disappointed that the piece that drew me to the book was more interesting than the
May 26, 2008 Jennifer rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Jennifer by: Rick Darke's Reading List
Shelves: non-fiction
"Get out now. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people...Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around...Abandon even, momentarily, the sleek modern technology that consumes so much time and money now, and seek out the resting place of a technology almost forgotten. "

This book is about changing your perspective into that of an explorer. An explorer of the forgotten, neglected and sometimes forbidden spaces.
Margaret Sankey
Jan 05, 2015 Margaret Sankey rated it liked it
Stilgoe prods his readers to be mindful when they move through the built environment, appreciating the clues left by construction--from the changing social mores represented in residential fencing, ghost signs, placement of rural mailboxes, why so many main streets look the same (they all burned down at once and were rebuilt together), bicycling along abandoned rail lines, the infrastructure squabbles on individual power lines and the economic and political outcomes of parallel and angled ...more
Jul 31, 2011 Evelyn rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
At first the writing style bothered me - it seemed too refined, too eloquent, too high-falutin'. But I got used to it, and besides it complemented the subject matter: discovering how interesting everyday places are, how rich a history they hold. This book is not only informative but also borders the edge of inspirational. At times during the reading, I wanted to put the book down and go out for a walk, maybe trespass a little to get behind the surface of things. It awoke my deep-seated nostalgia ...more
Oct 27, 2008 Trenton rated it liked it
Stilgoe writes a sort of combination field guide and manifesto for exploring the built environment. It urges you to get outside, on foot or bike, by showing you just how interesting the connections, histories and hidden meanings behind the parts of the built landscape. Stilgoe's work is in the same vein as Paul Groth, whose class at Berkeley on the built environment was one of my favorites. It's a quick read and basically packed with insights that will keep coming back to you every time you go ...more
Jan 24, 2009 Josh rated it liked it
I liked the book, but it wasn't quite what I hoped for. I am not sure why, but maybe I wanted more details of the amazing discoveries you might find by being more aware, and less romanticizing of being more aware and traveling slowly. Also, I found the writing style a bit annoying. The phrase The Explorer discovers... must have been used 1000 times
Jul 21, 2009 Leslie rated it liked it
Shelves: chez-mama
Fun, quick read. An grown up book to inspire a Charlotte Mason education. Reminds me of my childhood: walking everywhere, skating around our small town all day long. One notices much more at a slower pace and noticing more things leads to an appreciation and wonder of all that is within the world. Worth the little time it takes to read.
Dec 02, 2007 Michael rated it really liked it
title is goofy, but this is actually a perfect book for lying inside on your couch on a sunny day. it practically reads itself. the idea is that the author will bring your immediate surroundings to life by explaining the history and systems behind the landscape of your everyday life... trees and powerlines, the railroad, the back faces of strip malls, the postal service.
Sparkie Allison
Not exactly a magical tour, this book suggests that you explore from bicycle and observe what is around you. The author gives historical background on sidewalks, mailboxes, bike trails,telephone poles and cable wires and more. It is interesting, easy reading and inspires one to take notice of what is around us.
Aug 03, 2010 Sarah rated it really liked it
Very inspiring and fun -- the sole reason for my new interest in railroads. After reading this, be prepared to want to spend days on end outside exploring and observing, and trying to make connections with the past. I can't even look at power lines the same way again! This book is eye-opening and fascinating, and a must-read for any budding explorer and inquisitive mind.
Aug 26, 2012 T rated it liked it
I read this because I love the idea of exploring your surroundings and discovering hidden things around you, and the landscape history aspects of the book were quite interesting, but by the end, I was finding "the explorer" himself pretty insufferable. Liking to ride your bike around in areas where most people don't go is great and all, but does not actually make you a superior being.
Jul 15, 2007 Matt rated it really liked it
Did you ever wonder about train tracks? Or manholes? Or diagonal storefront parking? Well, I sure did. And then I read this, and for the next couple of weeks I almost wrecked my bike like twenty times because I couldn't stop looking at every single fire hydrant that I passed. Luckily, I have made a concerted effort to become less observant since then.
Rebekah Choat
Nov 13, 2009 Rebekah Choat rated it liked it
This wasn't exactly what I expected, but interesting nonetheless. Stilgoe encourages pedestrian and pedaling adventurers to explore the world just behind the public-front facades of our "built" environment, to discover the nearly-forgotten and rarely-recognized connections in the structures and infrastructure that make up our modern American landscape.
John P
Aug 03, 2007 John P rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone who once spent, and now doesn't, a lot of time outside as a kid.
A book length encouragement to spend more time outside. Great factoids about the size of an acre, Jefferson versus Adams, gardening practices of motels, and southern versus northern livestock rearing. If this was only 25-50 pages it would be an amazing essay. As is, I enjoyed it because of the subject but it suffered slightly from redundancy.
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John Stilgoe is an award-winning historian and photographer who is the Robert and Lois Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape at the Visual and Environmental Studies Department of Harvard University, where he has been teaching since 1977. He is also a fellow of the Society of American Historians. He was featured on a Sixty Minutes episode in 2004 entitled "The Eyes Have It."
More about John R. Stilgoe...

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