Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places” as Want to Read:
Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places

3.70  ·  Rating details ·  491 ratings  ·  84 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, 187 pages
Published April 1st 1999 by Walker Books
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.70  · 
Rating details
 ·  491 ratings  ·  84 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places
Oct 12, 2007 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
Feb 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: life-changing
Absolutely loved this little book - it will teach you to explore and look at the outside world more closely, with a different eye. "Exploration," Dr. Stilgoe writes, "is a liberal art because it is an art that liberates, that frees, that opens from narrowness."

A gem.
Jun 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a manifesto. A prompt to become an explorer; to go on leisurely, long walks or bike rides; to take the time to observe one's surroundings and muse on them, for the sheer pleasure of it. It's also a proof of concept, as Stilgoe weaves together insights on seemingly mundane features of the landscape: from the hum of power lines to angled parking spots to the plantings by motels off the highway. It's a beautiful book.

Outdoors, away from things experts have already explained, the slightly th
Howard Mansfield
Apr 02, 2012 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
Ashley H.
Jul 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Not at all what I was expecting, but a very interesting discussion of infrastructure and the building of America.
Aaron Becker
Nov 20, 2009 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 05, 2011 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
Kathy Salisbury
Apr 06, 2012 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
May 31, 2008 rated it really liked it
Read this long ago, but thought about this book a few times in the past year while reading media accounts of people getting out to explore their neighborhood on foot for the first time during the pandemic. I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand I absolutely agree with the author that there are things to see even in boring environments if one pays attention. On the other hand, I did not love the author's tone and style; it was a bit too academic and prescriptive. Also, it really w ...more
Mar 30, 2012 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. ...more
Aug 13, 2010 rated it liked it
I read this as part of research I'm doing for work. I thought it was intersting and had some interesting bits of trivia, but I found him a bit too lyrical. I know that sounds strange, but I really wondered sometimes, as I got lost in the language, what the point was exactly. ...more
May 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
While I found parts of this book slow-going and hard to get through, the smattering of Super insightful explanations of why things are the way they are made the effort of continuing on worth it. I learned lots of tidbits about fencing, land division, the post office, etc told in a winding sort of way that takes the reader on a journey by asking us to imagine being an explorer on a bicycle. My personal reading preference is quicker paced and more to the point, but perhaps this book should be a ca ...more
Ray Dunsmore
May 19, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
An absolutely fascinating book about the value of slowing down and truly looking at the landscape around you. I've been a street photographer for a few years now (even if I'm a bit out of practice lately) and the insights and ideas that gird this book are ones I hold very dear to my heart and find truly fascinating. The American suburban landscape is beautiful especially in the places where it is most commonly ignored, the small strange foibles that every citizen takes for granted. The ideas and ...more
Aug 12, 2020 rated it liked it
This wasn't what I expected, but it was a quick, pleasant read. Instead of providing some kind of formula for regaining history and awareness in everyday places, Stilgoe tells you it's possible, and then gives an eclectic collection of interesting historical facts about the mail service, train tracks, and power lines; then he sends you out to go on a walk and puzzle out the meaning of things yourself. ...more
Sep 18, 2017 rated it liked it
I enjoyed it, but as a city planner it was more validating, or inspirational, than educational. Given the dramatic cultural shift in America from "quality time" to "screen time," Stilgoe's work is a valuable, even needful, reminder to reconnect with and appreciate our community, the Earth, and life. ...more
Melissa Riley
Mar 15, 2018 rated it it was ok
This book was possibly the most boring read I've experienced so far. The first and last chapters were good - there was a clear, enticing call to be better observers of the world around us. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, in between was a self-serving, bloated, meandering drivel that imparted no real meaning. ...more
May 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book was not available new, so I bought a used copy. This imaginative book is about exploring—walking or biking outside with no structure or purpose other than observing your surroundings and finding the history all around you—what do the trees, poles, fences, and plants say about what came before, and how do the natural and man made come together? I found his writing original and beautiful.
May 05, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I adored this book. Published in 1998, it makes the perfect companion/chaser to “How to Do Nothing” by @jennitaur. It will make you want to explore your surroundings no matter how dull they may seem, and you’ll learn things you had no idea were knowable.
Patrick Murtha
Oct 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
There is so much that we simply don't see as we navigate our daily worlds, and this book is all about taking the blinders off. Wonderful and highly recommended. ...more
Mar 06, 2018 rated it liked it
Seems dated in many ways, but still contains many ideas about viewing neighborhoods and the world that are relevant as ever.
Aug 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Encourages the art of looking and asking, "I wonder...". ...more
May 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Challenged me to see things differently. Can never observe a fence without thinking- why? Well written .
Aug 15, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-2020, nonfiction
The introduction is gold.
Jan 22, 2014 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 i ...more
Mar 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Take a walk. Open your eyes. Wonder.
Jul 16, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Bryan Alka; urbanists; historians
Recommended to Jessica by: WPL Wed Book Discussion
Shelves: non-fiction
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 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 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
Sep 26, 2009 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 so ...more
Mar 05, 2013 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 relat ...more
« previous 1 3 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder
  • Nature and Grace in Herman Bavinck
  • Critical Response Process: a method for getting useful feedback on anything you make, from dance to dessert
  • Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life
  • How to Research Trends: Move Beyond Trendwatching to Kickstart Innovation
  • Freedom Libraries: The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South
  • Wanderlust: A History of Walking
  • Street Haunting
  • Men to Avoid in Art and Life
  • I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture
  • Into the Heartless Wood
  • Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth
  • Jacob's Room
  • Conjure Women
  • Live in Grace, Walk in Love: A 365-Day Journey
  • Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age
  • World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments
See similar books…
See top shelves…
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

Related Articles

Juneteenth, observed on June 19th each year, is an American holiday commemorating the day in 1865 when the last enslaved people in Galveston,...
139 likes · 19 comments
“I also hope this book makes each reader aware that his or her personal observations and encounters in the most ordinary of landscapes can and will raise questions and issues routinely avoided by programmed educational and entertainment authorities.” 0 likes
“The small town endures as the national attic of American social and spatial consciousness, a sort of frame through which further vistas are invariably viewed and twisted to fit.” 0 likes
More quotes…