Book Club #2: “On Looking,” Hosted By Maria Popova

Andrew Sullivan —  May 13 2014 @ 1:40pm

When I asked Maria Popova of Brain Pickings which book she’d like to pick for our second book club, her eyes widened a little. They do that a lot. It didn’t take long for her to settle on Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (alternatively subtitled “A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation”). In her work as a professor of cognitive science at Barnard, Horowitz is “currently testing the olfactory acuity of the domestic dog, through experiments in natural settings, and examining dog-human dyadic play behavior.” From the publisher’s description of the book Maria chose:

From the author of the giant #1 New York Times bestseller Inside Of A Dog comes an equally smart, delightful, and startling exploration of how we perceive and discover our world. Alexandra horowitz-onlookingHorowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes shows us how to see the spectacle of the ordinary—to practice, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it, “the observation of trifles.”

On Looking is structured around a series of eleven walks the author takes, mostly in her Manhattan neighborhood, with experts on a diverse range of subjects, including an urban sociologist, the artist Maira Kalman, a geologist, a physician, and a sound designer. She also walks with a child and a dog to see the world as they perceive it. What they see, how they see it, and why most of us do not see the same things reveal the startling power of human attention and the cognitive aspects of what it means to be an expert observer.

On Looking is nutrition for the considered life, serving as a provocative response to our relentlessly virtual consciousness. So turn off the phone and other electronic devices and be in the real world—where strangers communicate by geometry as they walk toward one another, where sounds reveal shadows, where posture can display humility, and the underside of a leaf unveils a Lilliputian universe—where, indeed, there are worlds within worlds within worlds.

From Maria’s extensively excerpted review:

[Horowitz’s] approach is based on two osmotic human tendencies: our shared capacity to truly see what is in front of us, despite our conditioned concentration that obscures it, and the power of individual bias in perception — or what we call “expertise,” acquired by passion or training or both — in bringing orwell-2attention to elements that elude the rest of us. What follows is a whirlwind of endlessly captivating exercises in attentive bias as Horowitz, with her archetypal New Yorker’s “special fascination with the humming life-form that is an urban street,” and her diverse companions take to the city. …

It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year, if not the decade, and the most enchanting thing I’ve read in ages.  In a way, it’s the opposite but equally delightful mirror image of Christoph Niemann’s Abstract City — a concrete, immersive examination of urbanity — blending the mindfulness of Sherlock Holmes with the expansive sensitivity of Thoreau.

It struck all of us as a great book to enter summer with, as we get outside more and try to turn down the digital noise in our heads. Less dense than the Ehrman book, it also covers a whole variety of ways of looking at the world – geology, physics, and the genius of dogs – ways many readers might be interested in or knowledgeable about. And, yes, it’s not about religion. I know that’s a niche topic. This one is literally everything on your block.

We’ll do the second Book Club exactly as we did the first – beginning the reader discussion, guided by Maria, after Memorial Day weekend. As with the Erhman book on early Christianity, the author will also show up at the end of the discussion, like Marshall MacLuhan, to tell us that we know nothing of her work. So buy the book through this link and get cracking. We’ll start the conversation as summer begins.