Book Club: A Conversation With Alexandra And Maria

Maria Popova, the host of our second Book Club, recently sat down with Alexandra Horowitz for a wide-ranging discussion of her latest book, On Looking:


 
Maria introduces it:

For the inaugural Dish Book Club podcast, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Alexandra to discuss her wonderful tapestry of perspectives on everyday life, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. Our conversation, itself a winding walk through psychology, literature, and the perplexities of modern life, ranges from Alice in Wonderland to dog cognition. At the heart of the discussion lies an exploration of how to end the tyranny of productivity (“I don’t mean to be testifying against productivity per se,” says Horowitz, “but I do see that it’s certainly mindless, the way that we approach there being only one route to living one’s life.”) and learn to live with presence (“I value the moments in my life that are productive, certainly, but only the ones that are productive and also present.”) Please enjoy.

If you don’t have time to listen to the whole 40-minute recording, we will be sampling the best parts throughout the weekend. In this clip, Maria and Alexandra discuss how the book might help counteract the perils of a mind too focused on productivity:


 
If you enjoyed any part of the conversation, send us your thoughts at bookclub@andrewsullivan.com. Follow the whole Book Club discussion here. And don’t forget to check out Brain Pickings, Maria’s fantastic blog, and subscribe to it here if you like what you read. We sure do.

Book Club: Sensing Too Much, Ctd

A reader responds to the email from the parent of two sons with sensory processing disorder:

horowitz-onlookingAs a well-functioning but diagnosed older person on the autism spectrum, taking a walk is an annoying and frustrating event. I friggin’ notice everything. I have to force myself not to read every word in every ad, identify the make and model of every car I pass by, peek around to see what that sound was – even though I know it was just a car door closing or a skateboarder in the distance. It doesn’t ever, ever stop.

That said, taking these walks with Alexandra Horowitz and her guests in On Looking got me out of my head. Getting out of my own head doesn’t happen enough, even when reading insightful books. Now, when I walk, I remember some of the wisdom of her experts’ knowledge and I look for those things. I think, What am I smelling? I look at the annoying signs and instead of repeating the words over and over until I see another annoying sign, I look at the typeface. I force myself to focus. On building materials, on rocks, on asphalt even.

In some small sense, I’ve become a better autistic. Or at least a calmer walker.

Maria Popova, who is hosting the Book Club, responds to the reader:

I love this. It reminds me of a favorite passage from the book:

Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you. By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of orwell-2information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.

The challenge this reader articulates, and a challenge for many on the autism spectrum, is that of being unable to turn off precisely those myriad external stimuli that the average person automatically misses. But what’s interesting is that over the past decade, growing bodies of research have shed light on the autistic mind as not lesser but different.

Perhaps one of its great advantages, and a key point of difference, is exactly this wide lens of attention coupled with narrow focus on each of the many things attended to – a fusion of what’s an either-or proposition for the nonautistic person. At its most acute, this advantage can manifest as anything from intricately detailed visual lists of everyday objects to mathematical genius. Autism advocate and pioneering animal behaviorist Temple Grandin has spoken about this beautifully in her TED talk and her introduction to the book Drawing Autism.

For the rest of us, though, missing “the vast majority of what is happening” is undoubtedly a survival strategy. I tried to imagine, biking through the city today, what it would be like if I paid attention to everything simultaneously – listened to every bird and every siren and every rushing executive yelling on her cell phone, looked at every storefront and every redhead and every fleeting reflection in a car window. I’d crash instantly – both literally and figuratively.

Follow the whole Book Club discussion here. Maria and Alexandra just recorded a short conversation over various aspects of On Looking, so stay tuned.

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: Sensing Too Much

A reader emailed prior to Maria’s intro today:

Afternoon! I am finding On Looking fascinating in so many ways! Two of my children werehorowitz-onlooking diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (along with Aspergers) and it is difficult for them not to notice everything. Hypersensitive to noise means they hear things that most of us have learned to filter out – same goes for light, touch, smell and taste. Like most people with SPD, their diagnosis came after years of extremely picky eating, complaints about scratchy clothing seams and tags and silky linings in coats, refusing to see movies at the theater and, in our case, having one of them bolt and get lost at an amusement park when he sensed the fireworks were about to start (even though we were on our way out of the park).

Living with my boys means that the rest of us are forced to take note of what we hadn’t. Often we realize just how much we are missing with our so-called properly functioning sensory system. True, they often find themselves with what can only be described as a traffic jam of sensory input in their brains (and that often leads to scenes that are not pretty), but they also notice first when the spring peeper frogs are awake, that the water system needs salt, that Daddy is home (in a Prius), and that the night-light bulbs are about to burn out.

bookclub-beagle-trWe prefer the word “challenge” rather than “disorder” when talking about their Aspergers and sensory issues because while it can be overwhelming at times and even debilitating, it is who they are. And we kid that they can use their powers for good rather than evil! Their powers of sensory observation sometimes astound and add layers to the ordinary that would otherwise have been totally missed. Coupled with what I have read so far in On Looking, I can’t see any journey being ordinary again.

The Dish has covered sensory processing disorders before – here and here. By the way, a reminder of Maria’s appeal to readers earlier today:

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.

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.