Book Club: Looking With New Eyes

What have you discovered in your daily routine since reading On Looking, our second Book Club selection? Our host, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, posed that question to Dish readers earlier this week:

Perhaps the greatest gift of a book club is that we get to share our private realities around a common point of interest – the book – and in the process enrich the collective experience. With that in mind, what is one facet of your day or aspect of your usual daily routine – your apartment, your commute, your dog walk route – that On Looking helped you see with new eyes?

Let us know by emailing bookclub@andrewsullivan.com and we’ll post the most interesting observations and photos. Buy the book here (or here for your Kindle) if you haven’t already. Karen Carlson was looking for “a quick, light, purely fun read” when she picked up the book last summer:

And it was a fun read, very much so – but it also sent me scurrying to google horowitz-onlooking Clochan na bhFomharach, a volcanic formation in Northern Ireland consisting of thousands of columns of basalt pushed out of the ground. And that’s just in a footnote. … “Minerals and Biomass,” her walk with geologist Sidney Horenstein of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, is when I got curious about volcanic leftovers in Northern Ireland. …

What surprised me most was how enchanted I was by the second chapter: “Muchness,” guided by the expert eyes of Horowitz’ 19-month-old son. I’m fairly immune to the charms of children, but this was engaging and informative. Horowitz is trained in cognitive science and teaches animal behavior at Barnard, and here she weaves nuggets from developmental psychology in to explain her son’s adoption of a standpipe as a pet, and his reaction to shadows.

She adds, “This book was just the break I wanted: an almanac of captivating anecdotes which will stick with me – and who knows, maybe one day I’ll take a walk, myself.” That’s what we’re hoping some readers will do. And that’s just what Ambre Nicolson, also inspired by “Muchness,” decided to do with her own toddler. An excerpt from their sojourn around Cape Town:

14h00: “Beep beep!”

My son, like Alexandra’s, is head over heels for any form of wheeled transport. Within the first 30m of our journey he has pointed out a red bus, several taxis, a bicycle and a shiny bookclub-beagle-trblack motorbike. Later in our journey he will be stopped, spellbound for almost 10 minutes, by the sight of a reversing garbage truck. While my son loves cars, it has been shown that spending too much time in one leaves kids without a healthy sense of connection to place. American urban researcher Bruce Appleyard has shown that kids who have a “windshield perspective” are less able to accurately draw a map of where they live, whereas kids who walked or biked could produce accurate and detailed maps of their communities.

15h00: A bench, a well and a pond

He stops only long enough to take off his shoes before continuing into the gardens to try and climb a tree, throw sticks into the pond, scale a bench and scurry under it in search of another squirrel. When I see he’s trying to climb onto the edge of the old well, the bottom of which is a long way down and strewn with evil smelling rubbish I am quick to intervene.

At the same time I remember a recent Atlantic article written by Hanna Rosin, “The Overprotected Kid”, in which she shows how harmful it is for children never to exercise their risk taking skills. I decide the least I can do is show him the hazard. He stares into the darkness of the well for a couple of seconds before solemnly throwing his stick into the depths. Not long after that his pace starts to slow, followed by him halting, mid-stride, and reaching both arms up to me. Universal toddler code for “This walk is now finished.”

Kim West, a teacher, also related to On Looking:

Everyday, when my dog and I go for a walk, we travel the same route. Because I already know the way, sometimes I’m impatient, mostly because I’m bored. After reading Horowitz’s book, I have learned to enjoy our walks by slowing down, and pausing in the ordinary. When caught up in the frame of mind of going from one destination to another (home to the park, then back home again) it was easy for me to forget that for my dog, every walk is an adventure with different smells along the way.orwell-2

It made me realize that as a content expert, and a teacher with many years of experience, sometimes my lessons are just like my walks. I forget that because I already know the way, for my students learning can still be a new adventure. This reminds me to find the joy in the ordinary experience of learning: what did I first think and feel when I was introduced to this topic? Why does that matter? How can I make the experience that I once had as fulfilling and exhilarating for my students?

Now, when creating my road map, I don’t just think about the content. I think about what my students and I do and why that matters.

The book also inspired Belinda Farrell to slow down and open her eyes:

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.

Follow the whole Book Club discussion here.

Book Club: How Do You Look At Your World Differently Now?

Maria Popova, the host of our second Book Club, starts the discussion by posing a challenge to readers:

“Reality,” Philip K. Dick wrote, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go horowitz-onlookingaway.” There are two reasons I chose Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes for the Dish book club. Besides being a masterwork of storytelling bridging science and everyday life, it also reminds us – subtly, elegantly, yet unequivocally – that what we call “reality” is a highly edited picture of the world, projected through the lens of our beliefs, our biases, our baggage, and our experientially conditioned selective attention. It’s a point especially poignant today as we go through our lives worshiping at the altar of productivity, often at the expense of presence. After all, as Annie Dillard put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And under the modern condition, we spend the overwhelming bulk of them in the trance of our routines, showing up for our daily lives but being, in a rather significant way, absent from them – the very tendency against which Alan Watts admonished half a century ago when he began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West.

What Horowitz does is peel back precisely those cognitive curtains that obscure from view the richness of our everyday reality. When I first wrote about On Looking last fall, I knew it was the kind of book that stays with you for a lifetime, but this awareness was rooted mostly in intellectual appreciation. I didn’t anticipate just how profoundly those eleven perspectives bookclub-beagle-trwould change the way I experience and inhabit my day-to-day life, from the parallel-universe ecosystem of wildlife in my tiny backyard to the remarkable invisible choreography of swiftly navigating a crowded New York City sidewalk while a hundred strangers do just the same.

Perhaps the greatest gift of a book club is that we get to share our private realities around a common point of interest – the book – and in the process enrich the collective experience. With that in mind, what is one facet of your day or aspect of your usual daily routine – your apartment, your commute, your dog walk route – that On Looking helped you see with new eyes?

Email your personal observations – and photos when relevant – to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com and we’ll pick the most interesting ones to post. And we’ll be discussing On Looking for up to the whole month of June, so you still have plenty of time to buy the book and join the conversation. Also, if you haven’t already, check out Maria’s inimitable blog, Brain Pickings, and subscribe to it here if you like what you read.

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

[Updated and re-posted from earlier this week]

When I asked Maria Popova of Brain Pickings which book she’d like to pick for our second book, 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. (The public library link is here.) We’ll start the conversation as summer begins.

Update from a reader:

I was very eager to join in the first book club because I adore the Dish community and knew that the discussion would be lively entertaining and I would definitely learn a thing or two. I have to admit I was disappointed by the first choice, How Jesus Became God. As a working mom I have limited time for reading not related to my profession so I couldn’t justify taking the time to read a book that didn’t spark my interest when I have so many waiting in my Kindle queue.

So I am one happy happy girl today because you have picked a book I was planning to read this summer! Thanks, and as a demonstration of my commitment, I am going to start today during recess.

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

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.