'On Looking' by Alexandra Horowitz was yet another recommendation from Brainpickings. I could fill an entire 101 books list from this website, every time I visit I say 'ooh, that looks interesting' and go see if it is on the library catalogue. Having said that, and even quite enjoyed it, I am struggling with how to write a review of a book of essays describing a series of perambulations.
The essence of the book is that the world around us is so much more full and interesting that you can possibly appreciate. That it is not the destination but the journey that matters. Alexandra starts by taking a walk around the block where she lives with her toddler son, trying to see the world from his perspective and appreciating the world as he experiences it. Having lived with small children this was not much of an eye-opener for me; I have spent many years experiencing life from the point of view of a toddler. She seemed to find it quite an effort to slow down to his pace. This walk is followed by one with a geologist, who shows her all about the rocks that her environment is constructed from. Then an expert in typography, and another in insects, and another in sounds. She walks with a blind woman to try and understand how she experiences the world, and also with a dog and gives us a rundown of the intricacies of canine olfactory skills. She lost me a bit there and I skipped the doggy chapter.
It felt like with each chapter all she was doing was pointing out yet another way in which us mere mortals were missing out. The one I really did enjoy was the walk with Maira Kalman, which was really so much more an exploration, being open to new places and opportunities, than some expert sharing their knowledge.
"Of course, I - and each of my fellow walkers - had been in four dimensions all along. Still, the progression of the walks was decidedly three dimensional; always up, down, and along sidewalks. Except when disabused of this notion by my son, I had defined a walk as a straightforward journey along a path between two points, A and B, the beginning of the walk and its end. What we manipulated was the time it took to cover that path: many of my co-walkers had slowed down to look more carefully at something underfoot or overhead. Occasionally we sped up to catch a glimpse of a store window before a shutter was pulled down, or we briefly galloped, as though someone were lighting a match to our tailcoats, to avoid becoming a pedestrian-automobile accident statistic.
But with Kalman, the definition of the space changed. She walked straight off of the sidewalks. I don't means she floated, in her blue canvas sneakers, hovering inches above the ground. (Though the image suits her, and matches many of her charismatic drawings that pose the subject, be it a pleated skirt or a robin, frameless on the page.) No, Kalman climbed not a tree. Instead she veered. She abandoned the course. She left the route and wandered into buildings that interested her. Over the course of five blocks and two hours, we went off course a half dozen times. We knocked on the door of a local halfway house. We meandered into a church. We descended into a basement senior centre that advertised itself as being specifically for 'black social workers.' We made it into the anterooms of an odd small museum of Russian art and a Buddhist temple, only stymied by ongoing renovations in each. Eventually we made it from A to B, but not before visiting all the later letters of the alphabet." (p.78-9)
So I learned lots of fascinating things, about rock formation, invasive species and what your walk says about your health, but it felt a very anecdotal book, there was nothing that linked the walks together. Writing the book was almost just an opportunity to talk to some interesting people about their work. She points out that our culture tends to value speed, rushing around, 'getting things done', and this is the antithesis of paying attention to the world. So maybe just slow down and look around a bit, you never know what you might notice.