On Looking: Eleven walks…came highly recommended. I haven’t read Alexandra Horowitz before, and the reviews on Goodreads were not the most encouraging. Nevertheless, I did start reading…
As the title suggests, and I suspect the blurb outlines, this book is about a few walks that Alexandra took around New York City. Alone, with her kid, her dog and a few experts. each time, a different person (yes, dogs are as human(e) too) and each time a different experience. She divides her walks into three categories – Inanimate, Animate and Sensory, and then goes on to discover (and help us readers discover too) a whole new world that she had completely missed on before. We look, but we don’t, is her contention. I do agree…and I don’t.
Early into the book, Alexandra notes that it is the very ignorance of the large amount of information bombarding our senses is what keeps us sane, and helps us concentrate. But somewhere down the line, this ignorance/concentration has also led to us missing a lot that happens around us. In this, I do agree with her. Most of the experts she chooses for her walks bring to our notice different aspects of life that exists in that one city block we are most familiar with- ours. All good. Where I don’t agree with Alexandra is in the level of detail that her experts sometime dive into – there is one who reads fonts and deciphers ages of buildings and the like. While it makes an interesting read…I seriously doubt that we would go font-deciphering anytime soon.
What is most refreshing about this book though, is the author’s writing style. Alexandra has a gift that I cannot describe with my limited capabilities for the written word. And so, I put forward some examples to further my case…sample this:
With Kalman, walking around the block entered a fourth dimension. … Eventually, we made it from A to B, but not before visiting all of the later letters of the alphabet. …
In front of her building she turned to shake my hand. “Nice to see you,” she said. And then, as if noticing my smile in response, she added: “There’s someone in my building who asked me, ‘How come you use that word, “see?” How can you say “I see it”?’ Well, I do see it. I said, ‘see’ has many definitions.”
The walkers trod silently; the dogs said nothing. The only sound was the hum of air conditioners,”
… she beholds her own block; passing a pile of trash bags graced by a stray Q-tip, she ponders parenthetically, “how does a Q-tip escape?”
…turning her final corner, she gazes at the entrance of a mansion and “its pair of stone lions waiting patiently for royalty that never arrives.
Did you get what I mean? Alexandra has an inimitable writing style, a penchant for rich and imaginative description…the way she starts on a topic and then digresses…not digresses really but branches out with anecdotes on related topics, a la Bill Bryson if you may…all of which make for a delightful read!
This book thus can be read at two levels. One – what it is – looking around at specifics, seeing things and objects that we missed, knowing more about the small things that surround us, that seem mundane but hold the story of a million years (yes, limestone holds fossils of ancient animals )…acknowledging the odors that we smell but refuse to register…in short – being more aware…and in awe of how wondrous our world truly is. This is how I suspect many readers experienced this book.
The second is a bit deeper. It goes beyond the walks, and into our whole lives in general. It deals with how we engage ourselves in everything we do. How we view the world, the way people behave around us, about us, towards us. How we view failure and success, how we deal with relationships. In the authors own words – ” Do not sag with exhaustion. there is no mandate; only opportunity. Our culture fosters inattention; we are all creatures of that culture. ……The unbelievable strata of trifling, tremendous things to observe are there for the observing. LOOK!”
This is how I experienced the book…and in my opinion, this is what makes this book a winner…much recommended…READ!