“To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.”
Alexandra Horowitz uses this John Burroughs quote to underline the idea behind her book. On Loo“To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.”
Alexandra Horowitz uses this John Burroughs quote to underline the idea behind her book. On Looking is not just about looking; it’s about attending to the everyday urban sights and sounds, smells and sensations that seem no different from those we experienced the day before.
By walking in the company of people who have different perspectives from her own, Horowitz comes to understand that every time she steps outside her apartment she can see her world anew.
Her walking companions include her own two year old son, a blind woman and a dog called Finnegan. But the core of the book is devoted to the observations of people who are experts in their own field of interest.
A geologist opens the author’s eyes not just to the concrete and the clay beneath her feet but to rocks and stones at eyelevel and overhead. In one small section of her Manhattan neighbourhood, Horowitz is alerted to Italian marble, Indiana limestone and metamorphic rock coexisting in a jumble of geology. To the geologist, so-called man-made objects are actually natural materials that have been customised to our purposes. And, like all natural features, they are subject to erosion. The experience is something of an epiphany for Horowitz. Solid surroundings now seem more vulnerable to the wind and water clawing and tearing at their fabric.
Accompanied by a typographer, the author is again able to read the city with new eyes, observing as if for the first time advertising boards and parking signs. Her companion awakes her not only to the multiplicity of excited lettering competing for attention, but to the form it takes. Just as the geologist sees old friends in the city stones, the typographer attributes human qualities to the letters he observes: a G is tipsy, a J suicidal; an ampersand is pregnant, an R long-legged.
In the course of these promenades, the author explains the backstory to our inattentiveness: “Part of what restricts us seeing things is that we have an expectation about what we will see.” She uses the example of an experiment in which subjects were asked to watch a video of a basketball match and to count the number of times the ball changed hands. Nearly half the subjects failed to notice the appearance of a person in a gorilla costume in the middle of the game. It’s this expectation that helps us focus on the things in front of us: “Expectation magically sorts the world into things-we-are-looking-for and things-we-are-not.”
And, as Horowitz demonstrates, looking is not only about seeing. Her walk in the company of a blind woman demonstrates the significance of the sonic. The woman’s cane not only advises other pedestrians to give her some space, but also conveys tactile information about what’s underfoot and what’s ahead. Or, more poetically, the cane “throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things.”
Perhaps the most enjoyable chapter of the book describes the author’s walk through Manhattan with an olfactory expert. Whereas humans are microsomatic (feeble-scented), dogs are macrosomatic (keen-scented). Horowitz allows her playful dog to show her the city from a nosey point of view. In doing so, she realises just how many low-basement windows there are, each with their own currents of dog-drawing scents.
The book is nothing if not timely. The current vogue for mindfulness is, in essence, a call to arms for our senses, a reminder to pay attention to the here and now.
Over a century ago, Sherlock Holmes, that master of observation, was saying much the same thing:
“You see, Watson, but you do not observe.” ...more