Finding Myself: Notes and Comments About “On Looking,” by Alexandra Horowitz

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

–e e cummings

It’s always a challenge to include an e e cummings poem in any essay I write because it takes me about ten minutes to fight my auto-correct setting in Word to allow the poem to appear the way that cummings intended it to.

That said, I was reminded of this poem when I finished reading On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to The Art of Observation, by Alexandra Horowitz. I think I was predisposed to enjoy the book because of who I am and how I see my world. Let me explain.

My wife, Zoe, and I spent one week of our 2004 honeymoon on Manhattan, staying in a hotel just a few blocks from Times Square. Carless, we walked everywhere we went in the city, except for a few subway rides and a tour of the city from the top of an observation bus. We were in awe of the city, especially Central Park, but also of MOMA, The Frick, Lincoln Center, Harlem, Yankee Stadium, and even the remains of the World Trade Center. Talk about “museum tired.” Our eyes and feet ached at the end of our week’s stay.

Last April, dear friends who live on the 22nd floor of an Upper West Side co-op, located one block from Lincoln Center, offered us their residence for one week, and we took them up on their generous offer. They were headed for a west coast vacation and had previously stayed as guests at our home here in Tucson in the winter of 2013. Paybacks from friends are wonderful at our ages, as this one was.

With eyes agog, we took on New York City once again, this time visiting The Statue of Liberty, Staten Island, Ellis Island, The Frick again, more museums, more restaurants, more shopping, and of course, Central Park. “Museum tired,” once again at the end of our week’s vacation, we returned to the wide open spaces of Arizona where we were in culture shock for at least a week, readjusting to our desert home and environment.

Horowitz says in her delightful book, “But in the city [New York], I know within seconds of waking up whether it is a weekday or a weekend by the sounds of the street alone.” (p. 228) Sleeping twenty-two stories above the city, we discovered that auditory fact. In Tucson, we don’t awaken to the sound of street traffic, but sometimes to the sounds of a pack of roaming javelinas, searching for juicy roots or water, right outside our windows. Horowitz even comments on that phenomenon: “Wild pigs, in search of a good drink in the desert, have lived in Tucson, a city of half a million people, for twenty years.” (p.138) Here’s an author who knows a lot about her world and even a few things about our southwestern world.

On Looking is a non-fiction gem about teaching ourselves how to see our worlds in a more complete way, whether we live in New York City or in Tacoma, Washington or in Tucson, Arizona. Horowitz sums up her premise in the very beginning of the book: “Part of normal human development is learning to notice less than we are able to” (26). Because we are all so very human and therefore forgetful, her recapitulation of that theme is also on the last page of the book as well: “Our culture fosters inattention; we are all creatures of that culture.” (265)

Her goal in writing the book is to get us to recognize that as we age we quickly grow out of our child-like curiosity of the world; that we miss “seeing” so many natural wonders that appear before us; and that our lives will be immensely richer if we recognize this attention deficit and retrain ourselves to become more observant.

Each chapter’s inscription is a quote intended to inspire us to recognition and action. A few examples:

To find new things, take the path you took yesterday. John Burroughs (41)

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. Paul Valery (57)

If you are ever bored or blue, stand on a street corner for half an hour. Maira Kalman (75)

Part of the book’s genius, for me, was its structure: after an introductory essay, “Amateur Eyes,” which sets up her premises and goals, there are twelve chapters arranged in three quatrains: one for the inanimate world, one for the animate world, and one for the sensate world.

The book’s structure reminded me of another non-fiction writer’s creativity, Charles Kuralt’s America (1995). Nearing the end of his career, Kuralt wrote a retrospective book of essays about his favorite places to visit in America. The format he chose was also twelve chapters, one for each month of the year, an idealized calendar of travelling perfection. But structure isn’t enough to make a book compelling. The topic has to be of interest as it is revealed through a recipe of skillful writing, worthwhile information, memorable quotes, and a dash of—or many dashes of—humor.

Another writer who does this type of non-fiction writing well is Bill Bryson, especially in A Walk in the Woods (1998) and In a Sunburned Country (2001). The first is about the author’s attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail; the second is about a tourist trip he made to Australia. Both use the same recipe Horowitz followed, especially adding many dashes of humor. Few non-fiction books make you laugh out loud. Bryson’s do.

Horowitz can, too. But before I cite some of her humorous comments, I think another reason why I was predisposed to like this book, aside from its many wonderful qualities, is her essay “Muchness,” about her eighteen-month-old son and a walk she takes him on to learn what he discovers when he is walking in the city.

As a grandparent of four children, two of whom who have passed that eighteen-month-old stage and two who are about to enter it, I know of the fascination that a child of this age has with the world around him, from experiencing his first tastes of freedom (constrained, of course, by a watchful parent or grandparent) to the joys of discovering a random world of shapes, sounds, and oh so many things to touch, smell, and even taste.

She writes of her son’s fascination with garbage trucks, dump trucks, all kinds of trucks on their walk. Tell me about it. My oldest grandson and I have followed a garbage truck around our neighborhood for blocks just to watch the mechanical arms pick up and dump countless blue and green receptacles into its belly. And heaven help you if you ever confuse a “city bus” with a “school bus” once that differentiation has been learned.

Horowitz has a sense of humor that complements her observational comments:

Poised half off the bottom step and half onto the sidewalk, my son squatted—a young weight lifter’s pose, or the spring-loading of an infant rocket. (20)

The infant’s world is a case study in confused attention. (22)

I was just getting used to the idea that we lived, apparently, on a block with an epidemic of Os. (25)

He kissed and bandaged our bedroom wall when he knocked into it with his head (34).

Horowitz sprinkles other humorous comments throughout her chapters:

Words are the ample cleavage of the urban environment: impossible not to look at (59).

I like Qs as much as the next person…. (67)

Any sound we do not like we call noise…. (217)

…the mother lode for dogs: other dogs’ urine. (247)

Horowitz has a sense of humor, though not as wry as Kuralt’s or as knee-slapping as Bryson’s. But a sense of humor is an important tool to use in a non-fiction book as dense with information as hers is. It’s equally important to be able to turn a phrase, to make memorable observations about all those facts that support a thesis:

A spill of spaghetti, cooked and sauced, formed a sunburst at my feet…. (6)

…a pair of stone lions waiting patiently for royalty that never arrives. (7-8)

In childhood, all is new. With age, we see things as familiar. (30)

Mushroom-hatted hydrants are silent sentries at child height. (33)

What exactly gives us pleasure? Things rich with information, packed tight with perceptual pudding. (68)

Sometimes we see least the things we see most. (155)

The morning had seen rain but afternoon had forgotten it. (215)

Sounds of a school playground: is there anything more evocative of childhood? (220)

…the susurration of a breeze in the canopy of a tree. (227)

I remembered the smell of childhood, ripe as the smell of crayons, the must of an old book, the smell of a new car. (258)

The most poignant chapter in the book is “Seeing: Not Seeing.” How insightful for Horowitz to include a chapter in her book about honing our observational skills, about learning how to really see our worlds once more, by including a short story about a blind woman. And so in this chapter we get to meet Arlene Gordon, a New York City woman who has been blind for forty-two years.

As Horowitz points out, “we humans generally do not bother paying attention to much other than the visual.” How then does a blind person “see” the city? Horowitz takes us on a walk with Arlene, and by the end of the chapter we know so much more about how blind people function, how they compensate with their other senses, how they carefully assume control of their environments, to the wonder of all of us who are only meta-phorically blind to our worlds. When Arlene says “Nice to see you,” at the end of their walk together, she can sense that Horowitz is smiling. Arlene reminds her that “’see’ has many definitions.

Arlene’s comment takes me back to “maggie and milly and molly and may,” who all came to the beach to find what they were predisposed to see, what they were already looking for. Like those four girls, when we read any book, we always find ourselves somewhere in those pages.

I’m glad I found myself in “On Looking.” a refreshing collection of memorable walks through New York City that served to remind me that our daily lives should be more than making a beeline from Point A to Point B. Why not stop and smell the garbage trucks, marvel at the dump trucks, and wave at all the school busses?

Ron Powers January 20, 2015

All parenthetical page references from On Looking, Scribner, 2013

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About powersron

I'm a member of the Tacoma Retired Men's Book Club.
This entry was posted in 2015 Selections, On Looking and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Finding Myself: Notes and Comments About “On Looking,” by Alexandra Horowitz

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    When I read your review it makes me want to re-read On Looking. When I initially read the book I was disappointed. I had high expectations that I was going to like the book, but it was not what I expected, and somehow I got thrown off track somewhere early in the book and was never able to recover.

    In addition to being a member of the Tacoma Retired Men’s Book Club I also belong to the Tacoma Film Club. I have had the experience many times of attending a Tacoma Film Club discussion of a movie I did not like very much, but leaving the discussion thinking, I need to watch that film again because I would see it from an entirely different perspective now. Your review has had a similar effect on me concerning this book.

  2. Dick Dorsett says:

    Dear Ron Powers, I thought the book an environmental crime; a waste of trees and paper. But I guess it’s good to read you got something from it. It had too many adverbs, too many cutesy adjectives, and too much baby talk. I got nothing from On Looking other than it forced me to find other books about looking to get the bad taste out of my mind.

  3. pmunrafp says:

    I’ll repeat the comment I made during our discussion. One part of On Looking that I found very valuable was the explanation of how, as infants grow what they see undergoes dramatic changes. Having had two sons and wondering what they were seeing and how they were interpreting the world around them, I found her explanation very interesting and enlightening. There are some books I read and I come away, after a while, with nothing. I will remember On Looking for a long time for what it taught me about what infants see when they look.

    Peter Farnum

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