Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

Alexandra Horowitz teaches psychology, animal behavior, and canine cognition at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York City. She lives in the city and is a regular walker -- just her and her dog, or with her husband or little boy. She knows the city pretty well and thought she was good at noticing things.

But she began to wonder what she might be missing on her walks. So she arranged to walk with folks with "expert eyes" to let them show her things she would never have thought to look for herself. The result is her fascinating book, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes.

Among her experts were people whose passions were geology, art, typography, tiny little bugs, urban animals, how we use public spaces, microbiology and art, world travel, and sound design. And then there was her dog, oh yeah, and her 19-month-old son. She often walks with her son, but this time she let him lead the way. They did more stopping and investigating when he was in the lead that they normally do.

To read On Looking is to immerse yourself in overload. It provided more information and detail and, for me, pure delight, than a whole year's worth of Jeopardy. Each walk offered unlimited opportunities to get sidetracked, the perfect escape for trivia lovers with ADD! Whether discovering the tiny holes in leaves made by a certain kind of bug or entering a public building just because it was there and her walking partner had never been in it before, Horowitz relished the insights.

Each of her walking partners was fascinating, even apart from their expertise. The three I found most interesting were Paul Shaw, Dr Bennett Lorber, and Arlene Gordon.

Shaw's obsession is lettering. Of him Horowitz says, "Shaw is afflicted with the disorder of knowing too much -- in this case, about the design of letters. It is a disorder that makes one, as Shaw is, a formidable typographer. He is a professional letterhead. Shaw creates lettering -- and studies it, as a writer and on foot. ..This malady, this literaphilia, makes one seek, and see, letters. In a city, letters are everywhere." He noted things like the Q with its tail protruding into the O rather than out of it, and he came up with a theory about why it was made that way. His perspective on lettering gave Horowitz a whole new way to view the city's signage.

I was particularly drawn to Dr Lorber. He "specializes in diagnosing and studying anaerobic infections, but I had come to walk with him because of his side interest in the physical exam." Lorber is a noticer, a fine skill for a physician. As part of his job he teaches medical students how to take a patient's history and do a physical exam, helping them to truly see the patients for who they are. Walking with Horowitz, he pointed out symptoms he saw in others that would indicate this diagnosis or that. I must say, since I was young I have looked for this quality in doctors. (Sad to say, I haven't found one who profoundly met my expectation. It was from reading an article in the Readers Digest when I was a kid, one of their "My Most Unforgettable Character" stories, about just such a doctor that made me think this was not a rare quality in a physician.  Though I have googled that article to see who this amazing doctor was, I have not found him. Horowitz does talk about Dr Joseph Bell, the real-life doctor on whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his Sherlock Holmes character. Just to come across Dr Bell's name was worth the read of On Looking, but it was, indeed, just one of the reasons I liked the book.) Well, that quality in a doctor is not at all common, as life has taught me, but Dr Lorber is another real-life doctor who does this gift. Through observing an odd gait, an asymmetrical body alignment, a person's handshake, even their smell, Lorber is able to diagnose people's medical conditions. Harowitz says, "It is not only the diagnosis that I valued; it is the way that knowledge oriented [his] looking -- an ability to 'see what [he] sees,' as it were." And isn't that a skill that each of us desire to develop?

In her eighties, Arlene Gordon has spent the last half of her life without sight, but that has not stopped her from traveling the world. She views her many travel experiences with the eyes of her companions and returns home with as real a story to tell as those who actually experienced the trip visually. As the two walked the block around Gordon's apartment, she showed Horowitz how to see with her ears and sense of feel. The sound is different under an awning, she demonstrated, than it is in the open, and a slight bump into the front of a building orients her to the lay of the land. The world opens up when you begin to experience it with all your senses.

I would love to have had someone like Alexandra Horowitz in that 7th grade Creativity class that I taught.

So in On Looking you have a curious author, anxious to see in new ways, a number of experts who add color to the story and stimulate the author (and the reader) to be more observant, and all kinds of trivia that is not available in a single volume any place else on earth. Now, that's fascinating!

Not everybody, however, will want to read this. Of the handful of people whose reading habits I know very well, at least one will say, "TMI" (Too Much Information). And two will say "Too many words." As a matter of fact, among my handful, I can only think of one who likely would be drawn to the book. If you are one with little patience for reading a book written from a decidedly evolutionary perspective, I suppose this book would not hold much interest for you. Though her perspective is not my own, I read the book for the wonders it held, not the worldview. And I found it to be a very worthy read.

Okay, are you ready to take a short walk with the author? It just may make you want to reconsider how you look at the world around you.

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