On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

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On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes
Alexandra Horowitz
© 2013

Format: Hardcover
Pages: 309 (265 if you don’t count sources, acknowledgments, index, etc.)

Atlanta is definitely a car city.  To get from point A to point B, people drive (that, of course, is why Atlanta routinely is ranked as one of the worst traffic cities in America).

But there is one walk that Bryan and I take on a regular basis.  We call it, simply, the “Doughnut Walk.”  On lovely (and sometimes not-so-lovely) weekend mornings, we walk from our house to the oft-mentioned hipster doughnut shop in our neighborhood, Revolution Doughnuts.

I know that walk well.  I know the house with the massive Styrofoam movie-set gargoyle in the front yard and the house with all the wind chimes and the house with all the prayer flags.  I know the best places to cross the street.  I know where all the Little Free Libraries are.

But, sometimes, even though I’ve walked that walk a million times, something will stand out.  Like the day in late September, when I saw the first tree that had changed from green to red:

Doughnut Walk Tree

This book is about a similar walking experience.  Author Alexandra Horowitz is a professor of psychology who walks around her neighborhood in New York City every day.  The book’s premise is this: she would take a similar walk with eleven “experts” in an effort to see things she normally misses.

Here are the walks and walkers:

  1. Horowitz’s son: This kid is 19 months old.  Needless to say, he’s not an expert on much of anything.  The goal of this walk, I guess, was for Horowitz to notice toddler-height things and weird toddler behaviors  (i.e., not socially acceptable, like staring).
  2. Sidney Horenstein, geologist:  For the last forty years, Horenstein has coordinated environmental outings for the American Museum of Natural History.  Horenstein pointed out rocks (from red granite on the face of his museum to limestone in a retaining wall).
  3. Paul Shaw, letterhead: Shaw is an expert in typeface and creates custom lettering.  He looks at signs and makes the following sorts of observations: “‘Helvetica: the usual thing you’d expect [. . .] followed by avant-garde Gothic with italic.  Eww. [. . .] And then Adobe Garamond, italic . . . and then with bad spacing . . .'”
  4. Maira Kalman, illustrator: Ostensibly, this walk was about how an artist sees the world.  But, in reality, it’s not about much of anything.  There are two drawings by Kalman from the walk that made it into the book.  The rest is a bunch of Horowitz introspection.
  5. Charley Eiseman, bug sign expert: Eiseman co-wrote the book Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates A Guide to North American Species.  He can’t identify the actual bugs (“’An arachnologist might be able to tell you’ . . .”); he just knows their signs: egg cases, exoskeletons, parasitism, droppings, cases, leaf mines, galls, mounds, and signs on vertebrates (like mosquito bites).
  6. John Hadidian, wildlife expert: Hadidian is Senior Scientist of the Humane Society in the Wildlife division.  He notices the evidence of the rats, raccoons, and coyotes (!) in the city.
  7. Fred Kent, urban space expert: Kent is the president of the Project for Public Spaces in New York.  The purpose of this walk was to “try to see, through his eyes, the theater of the sidewalk, played out by the people who find themselves on it.”  Kent views slowing down and loitering as good urban experiences.  On the walk, he observes and discusses crowd behaviors (avoiding bumps, keeping up with the rest of the people on the sidewalk).
  8. Dr. Bennet Lorber, medical school professor, doctor, and president-elect of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia: Lorber describes the afflictions he notices based on his observations of the passers-by (he suspects a genetic disorder on the XY chromosome of one woman based on “’[t]he way her ears were set low, her short stature, and what was called ‘webbing’ under the face.’”).  This walk should have been really interesting, but Horowitz only discusses a couple of Lorber’s on-the-fly diagnoses.  Also included in this chapter is a discussion of a walk with Horowitz’s physical therapist, where he observed the gaits of fellow walkers (“Her knees rotate in, see?  She’s a likely knee-injury candidate, hip injury candidate.”).
  9. Arlene Gordon: Gordon is a blind woman who lost her sight in her forties “after years of deteriorating vision and unsuccessful surgical interventions.”  She uses a cane when she walks, judging distance and space not only by what the cane is hitting but also by the sounds that result from the cane’s tapping.  Gordon discusses how she gauges and perceives her location using echoes and wind.  She talks about how cell-phone talkers and high-heel walkers help her understand the space around her.
  10. Scott Lehrer, sound engineer and sound designer: Lehrer discusses the “symphony” of city noises and how those are affected by such things as the “wetness” of a space (based on its size and surfaces) and magnifying echoes.  There’s also some moderately interesting stuff on “auditory restoration,” the brain’s ability to fill in the blanks of words and sounds we’ve missed.
  11. Finnegan, Horowitz’s dog: This walk was supposed to highlight the difference between macrosomatic (“keen-scented”) animals (Finnegan) and microsomatic (“feeble-scented”) animals (Horowitz).  Really, it’s just a way for Horowitz, who fancies herself a dog-psychology expert (she is the author of the book Inside of a Dog), to share some dog knowledge.  The one (and only one) interesting thing I learned from this walk was that dogs smell different things through different nostrils—the left nostril “is involved in calming experiences,” while the right nostril “is involved with stimulating an arousal response, of aggression, fear, or other strong emotion.”

The chapters on the bug guy (walk #5) and the sound guy (walk #10) have the most about the walkers’ particular specialties, and those chapters are by far the most interesting.  They are also the exception.  Most of the walks are failures for the following two reasons: 1) Horowitz focuses too much on herself and her repeated and redundant observations and not enough on the experts’ points of view or areas of expertise, and/or 2) there’s too much about the science of sight and perception generally and not enough about the walkers’ fields of expertise specifically.

Horowitz often goes on long and pointless tangents, often about attention and sight.  She should have limited this kind of thing to the introduction or conclusion (where, I should add, there is ample information about those topics already).  The result: the book is really boring.

Rating: 1.5/5 🚶

The idea is a good one, but the execution is terrible.

The book is subtitled “Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes.”  Even loosely defined, simply being a dog or a youngster or blind does not make you an expert.  I’m sorry.  

But the biggest problem is simply that Horowitz is annoying . . . and she goes on all the walks.

I have a few specific beefs with her.  First, she’s condescending.  She has an annoying habit of using words and defining them in the text (like “I was seeing a glimmer of animism in my son—the attribution of life to the inanimate,” and “My son’s neophilia—love of the new . . .”).

Second, she is extremely self-centered.  The point of the book as presented was for Horowitz to gain new and interesting perspectives on her everyday walk.  Unfortunately, too much of the book is focused on her own observations and research.  And that wasn’t nearly as interesting as the information and observations provided by the experts.

Third and finally, she is untrustworthy.  Remember when Oprah got so pissed at James Frey when The Smoking Gun report came out revealing that A Million Little Pieces wasn’t the memoir he claimed it was?  That’s because you have to be able to trust your non-fiction author (whereas, when reading fiction, you know that you have the potential to be tricked by an unreliable narrator).

Horowitz got some things straight-up wrong, so I couldn’t trust her.  Here’s an example: she talks about Tetris at one point (as I mentioned here, I’m a bit of a geek . . . especially when it comes to puzzle games), describing the “Tetris Effect”:

I became a Tetris player.  Do you know the game? [. . .]  Four simple shapes floated down from the top of the screen, and all one had to do was rotate them and send them scurrying to the left or right in an attempt to fill all the bins at the bottom of the screen before the shape landed, clumsily, on its edge.  Tetris players know what happens after hours of playing this game.  Objects in the real world all turn into variation on these shapes.  Entering the library, I saw the jagged pieces that needed to be rotated vertically and set onto a matching shape.

The problem: Tetris has seven simple shapes (even if you give her the benefit of the doubt and count the L and its mirror image as one shape and the z and its mirror image as one shape, you’re still left with five different shapes).  Horowitz notes that the name Tetris is derived from the prefix “tetra-” . . . but she should know that the four refers to the fact that each of those seven simple shapes is comprised of four segments.

If Tetris is a game she has played so much that the library starts turning into tetronimos, as she claims, then she should certainly know how many different shapes there are.  Something doesn’t add up.  I understand that this is a silly bone to pick.  But I use it simply to illustrate my point: people writing non-fiction need to get their facts straight.  If they don’t get the simple things right, how can we trust anything else they write?  Not to mention, this Tetris Effect tangent is also a great example of the many self-centered tangents she goes on . . . at the expense of the more interesting observations of the experts. 

Who should read it: Anyone who has a particular interest in one or more of the walkers’ areas of expertise (just keep in mind that you won’t learn as much about the area of expertise as you will about Horowitz’s thoughts about it).

Other opinions? I know at least a couple people (Tina, Dad) who read and enjoyed this book.  If you’ve read and enjoyed it, please feel free to share your perspective, opinions, and rating in the comments below!

One final thought: GIVEAWAY REMINDER!  If you haven’t entered the contest yet, don’t forget to do so here before January 15th!

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