Books: ‘On Looking’ by Alexandra Horowitz

“How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timelessly beautiful meditation on presence over productivity.  And nowhere do we fail at the art of presence most miserably than in urban life — in the city, high on the cult of productivity, where we float past each other, past buildings and trees, past the little boy in the purple pants, past life itself, cut off from the life of a breathing world by our earbuds and cell phones. And so, “The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras reverberates.

The art of observation is the theme of Alexandra Horowitz’s wonderful book, On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation (2013). In it, Horowitz shows us how to see the spectacle of the ordinary—to practice, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it, “the observation of trifles.”

Structured around a series of eleven walks the author takes, mostly in her Manhattan neighborhood, On Looking features experts on a diverse range of subjects, including an urban sociologist, the well-known artist Maira Kalman, a geologist, a physician, and a sound designer. Horowitz 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. 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.

Horowitz begins by pointing out incompleteness of our experience of what we conveniently call “reality”:

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. We celebrate this purposeful ignorance as “concentration” and welcome its way of easing our cognitive overload. But while this might make us more efficient in our goal-oriented day-to-day, it also makes us inhabit a largely unlived — and unremembered — life, day in and day out.

For Horowitz, the awakening to this incredible, invisible backdrop of life came thanks to Pumpernickel, her “curly haired, sage mixed breed” (who also inspired Horowitz’s first book, the excellent Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know), as she found herself taking countless walks around the block, becoming more and more aware of the dramatically different experiences she and her canine companion were having along the exact same route:

Minor clashes between my dog’s preferences as to where and how a walk should proceed and my own indicated that I was experiencing almost an entirely different block than my dog. I was paying so little attention to most of what was right before us that I had become a sleepwalker on the sidewalk. What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see; what my dog showed me was that my attention invited along attention’s companion: inattention to everything else.

The book was her answer to the disconnect, an effort to “attend to that inattention.”

Together, we became investigators of the ordinary, considering the block — the street and everything on it—as a living being that could be observed. In this way, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the old becomes the new.

About the Author

Alexandra Horowitz is a professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, where she teaches seminars in canine cognition, creative nonfiction writing, and audio storytelling. As Senior Research Fellow, she heads the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard. Her research and writing is aimed to answer the question of what it is like to be a dog. Her latest book is Our dogs, ourselves (2019), Scribner, New York, NY.

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