Sometimes you can be around something so often you stop seeing it. The opposite can be true as well: you’re expecting to find something, so your senses focus on that something and you miss everything else. How can you be more observant of the everyday world around you? That’s what Alexandra Horowitz set out to understand in On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. (WorldCat / LibraryThing).
Horowitz lives in New York City apartment building and takes frequent walks around her neighborhood. She wanted to discover how much she was missing by taking walks with people attentive to very different things. The perspectives of her companions might reveal things she had overlooked. I found the concept predictable but intriguing. I walk my neighborhood streets — albeit suburban rather than Manhattan — about three times a week.
Horowitz managed to surprise me. Her effort was not simply to become more observant; she wanted to see a wholly different city. In separate chapters she took walks with eleven different companions, beginning with her dog (studying the whys and wheres of sniffing, listening, and watching) and her son (who she raved about, by the way. I’m sure he’s as wonderful and smart as she says.). She also walked with a geologist who pointed out the fossils and shells from various limestone deposits around the country that now make up the foundations of buildings in her neighborhood.
Then she took a turn I wasn’t expecting. She walked with a typographer who didn’t merely look at the signs in the neighborhood but read details and histories into the typefaces and graphical applications themselves. She strolled a campus with a doctor who gave basic observational medical diagnoses of people based on the way they walked, limped, or favored one knee over another. A blind woman led her around the block and she became aware how minute variations in wind and warmth signaled awnings and approaching street corners. She walked with a sound engineer, a public spaces and pedestrian traffic consultant, a wildlife expert, an insect advocate and an artist.
Each person had a particular talent that added dimension to her basic awareness. Each walk brought with it the potential of an entirely new neighborhood. I don’t think I would try to tackle all eleven different perspectives in any single walk but I may, from time to time, decide to pick one of those viewpoints and see what new things I might find on my walks. It’s my neighborhood; I might as well see what it has to show me.