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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

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  423 Ratings  ·  76 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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Emma Sea
Jan 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: paperback, i-own-it

I want a bike
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
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
Jun 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Jun 13, 2013 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
Dec 04, 2008 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 goo ...more
Mar 16, 2008 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 do ...more
Aug 19, 2011 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 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 11, 2008 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 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 parkin ...more
Jul 26, 2011 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
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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."
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“I wonder if more students would do better in elementary and high school if teachers taught more about individual exploration of subjects and less about sliding smoothly along observational ruts. Exploration is a liberal art, because it is an art that liberates, that frees, that opens away from narrowness. And it is fun.” 0 likes
“Ordinary exploration begins in the juiciest sort of indecision, in deliberate, then routine fits of absence of mind... Exploring requires the cloak of invisibility bicyclists and walkers take for granted.” 0 likes
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