A blog for everything bookish

Sunday 20 April 2014

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz

As a lover of literature, all literature, I have been attempting to read more non-fiction books. I’m a heavy reader of fiction, frequent reader of poetry, occasional reader of short fiction and fairly light reader of non-fiction. Which is not strictly true, exactly, as I read a lot of news reports and articles related to my work or matters of interest, but books of non-fiction not so much. My challenge is to read one piece of non-fiction per month, spread over the month. I find it difficult (but not impossible, the amazing Book of Silence proved that) to continuously read a book of non-fiction in the same way as I read a fictional work. I suppose this shouldn’t be too surprising as I would not expect to read poetry in the same way as I read a novel so neither should I expect to read non-fiction in same way.

Of course I have fallen behind on my target, but bear with me. I could catch up yet.

I also wanted to read non-fiction written by women. I think where there is an acceptance of female novelists and poets, there remains a challenge for women writing non-fiction. Perhaps this is linked to the idea that women cannot be experts, or a general preference for fiction, or perhaps it is women who think themselves unqualified to write about non-fiction subjects. Who knows. Whatever the reason, it is harder to find non-fiction written by women.

Anyway, that aside I did find a non-fiction book written by a women on a subject that interests me. Alexandra Horowitz’s book ‘On Looking’ is all about how to look and feel and experience more closely that which we take for granted: our local streets and neighbourhoods. Horowitz is based in New York, so her walks were all city based which gives an interesting contrast to my own experience which is more rural in nature. Not being a fan of cities in general, it gave me an interesting view on how to find the fascinating even in the concrete and glass jungle which seems so off-putting to me.

In exploring how to see and experience more of our environment, Horowitz took a series of walks with different experts and taking different perspectives. This helps to draw out different aspects of the environment which might otherwise be missed on a city walk. As a starting point Horowitz took and described her own walk, including some interesting information about why it is that we learn not to see, and she also took a walk with her small son, allowing him to guide her in his own exploration of their neighbourhood. The results were quite interesting. Horowitz discovered that when she walks she walks to be somewhere taking little in and moving swiftly, whereas her son’s walk was far more of an exploration sometimes taking 20 minutes before moving from one interesting sight to another. In her walk with her son Horowitz was surprised to find how frustrating she found it, how much she longed to move determinedly through the streets whereas her son longed to linger and examine and see.

This theme repeats throughout the walks that Horowitz takes with the experts, but in these walks she is much more open to seeing and experiencing the city through the eyes of her fellow walkees. Horowitz walks with Sidney Horenstein an expert on geology, Maria Kalman an illustrator whose willingness to walk into seemingly off-limits places Horowitz found both exciting and disturbing (much notice is taken of personal space), Paul Shaw an expert on typefaces, Charley Eiseman a naturalist who spends most of his time flipping over leaves looking for evidence of creepy crawlies, John Hadidian who has a similar interest but in the larger animals living in the city, Fred Kent an expert on the use of urban space and a man who enjoys a well thought-out shop front, Dr Joseph Bell who can diagnose medical conditions at a glance. By far my favourite walk was that she took with Arlene Gordon whose blindness doesn’t stop her from ‘seeing’ the city, and she also took an interesting walk aimed at hearing the city better and one from a dog’s eye (or more accurately: nose) view.

The specifics of the walks aren’t really important, but what this book made me think about was the quality of my own walking. Often I walk with a purpose: I am going somewhere. I walk up hills because I want the sense of achievement from reaching the top coupled with the reward of an amazing view. I walk to exercise, swiftly and with little care about where I’m going. I walk with earphones in my ear, listening to my own soundtrack and not the soundtrack of the world outside. Reading this book made me think of the pleasure of walking for the sake of walking, for the pleasure of the walk itself. I’d forgotten how much that could be a voyage of discovery. I think that in the Western world we have become obsessed with the idea of goals and stages and achievements and challenges, and there’s nothing wrong with that except it denies us the pleasure of the journey, that the point of a goal is that you are going somewhere but it is the bit between the setting of the goal and achieving of it in which all of your learning and striving and doing takes place. Ignoring the middle part is a bit dumb, when you think about it.

Perhaps it just mirrors the way I’ve been feeling recently, but the idea of going for a walk for the pleasure of walking, as a means unto itself, is very appealing. There is something wonderful in being reminded that life is a means unto itself, that we don’t have to wait until tomorrow to find pleasure in our existence. This book reminded me that you don’t have to go somewhere else to find something beautiful or interesting, that it’s right there outside the window as long as your eyes are open.

On Looking receives an insightful 8 out of 10 Biis. 

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