A Review of Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes…
About once a month my friend Bob and I take an urban hike. We like to walk, and we like to eat. So we plan our hikes in interesting parts of the city and select our routes so that they include restaurants that we have read about. Bob has a taste for a Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich and so we park at Montrose Harbor, walk six miles through the North Center and Lincoln Square neighborhoods and end up at Argyle Street. My wish to eat at the Publican Quality Meets near Randolph Street is the inspiration for a walk from Wrigley to the Cell, eight miles on Halstead. When we’re joined by my city-wise son, he offers both good company and sound advice on coffee shops or taquerias.
The walks are opportunities for conversation and interesting encounters with neighborhood folks who we are not shy about approaching. Bob is a gifted photographer and his always-ready camera has captured some wonderful images of the city and its people. I’m fairly knowledgeable about the history of the city and the configuration of its neighborhoods, but occasionally there are historical places that I missed on the Geoffrey Bair video tours of Chicago. On our walk to Argyle Street we discovered the former site of the Essanay Studios, which in the early 20th century was a site for producing films starring the likes of Charlie Chaplin.
Despite what we think is a high level of attention to the changing urban environment, I’ve always finished our walk both with a feelings of satisfaction and pleasant fatigue, but also with a sense that I’ve missed a lot. And so I was an eager reader of On Looking.
Horowitz is a professor of psychology at Barnard College with a specialty in animal behavior. [Her previous work Inside of a Dog is very popular.] She’s a resident of New York City’s upper West side and an inveterate city walker with her human and canine family. This most recent work grew out of dissatisfaction similar to my own: the feeling that we could be much more attentive to our surroundings and that the companionship of a number of experts would enable us to become more fully awake. Horowitz selects 11 experts to share her walk around the neighborhood and to communicate their informed perspectives. Her experts include a geologist, naturalist, illustrator, sound engineer, and physician. Among the experts are walkers who we would not consider experts but who are, nevertheless, agents who interact with the world in an interesting way. The meanderings of her toddler son enable her to think about the developmental challenges of making sense of the “blooming, buzzing confusion,” as psychologist William James describe the bombardment of stimuli that we confront. A chapter called “A Dog’s- Nose View,” which draws from her previous work, might as easily have been called “On Smelling” because it focuses on the ways in which canines, with their finely-tuned olfactory apparatus, have one up on their eye-dominant human masters. Her writing is informed by current research in perception and information-processing.
Students of zoology and ecology will find the two chapters devoted to animals both large and small to be very informative. Anyone who has wondered about the coyote in the back yard or the snail on the sidewalk will come away better informed about the human-animal inter-relationship. And students in preparation for careers in the medical field will learn much about those practitioners, like Dr. Bennett Lorber, who are able to infer much about how the body in space (its gait, its smell) reveals the individual’s internal disorders. Lorber believes that our life histories are revealed in our bodies and that a trained diagnostician can read the signs without the aid of sophisticated medical technology.
The chapters that I read with the most interest are those devoted to the “unterwelten” or world view of the graphic designer, illustrator, and urban planner. Paul Shaw, a specialist in fonts, helps Horowitz to understand the sources of her aesthetic pleasure and disgust in the hundreds of billboards, handbills, and shop window script that she sees on her walks. And he reveals that a knowledge of the history of the popularity of a font is a useful tool in determining the building’s date of construction and the city’s character. The use of Helvetica throughout the New York City subway system did as much as anything to make that font one of the dominant ones in our visual culture.
Illustrator Maria Kalman uses photographs of ordinary objects as the starting point of her illustrations. Her aim is to defamiliarize the familiar, to make us see with a perception more like Horowitz’s toddler than an art historian. The discarded couch at curbside is a treasure to observers like Kalman. The intrepid artist and rambler also helps Horowitz to understand better the shifting boundary between private and public space.
Fred Kent, President of the Project of Public Space, is an advocate of livable cities and a researcher into the ways in which the environment can be engineered to enrich the urban experience. A student of sociologist William Whyte, he is an analyst of pedestrian movement on sidewalks and through larger public spaces. Acquainted with the research on the movements of animal swarms, he’s a keen analyst of the “pedestrian dance,” the ways in which use our vision and other senses to find our way through human traffic. While interested in the efficiency of movement, he’s also interested in the ways in which public space can be organized to promote constructive loitering, an antidote to urban isolation. He offers a number of counter-intuitive theories: that well-place barriers can facilitate rather than impede traffic flow; that jaywalking may be safer than crossing at an intersection because the eye contact between pedestrian and driver (mostly non-existent in designated crossing zones) is the contributor to safety. Kent also helps to explain Horowitz’s irritation to the texting-while-walking crowd. Horowitz’s chapter on the blind Arlene Gordon is an interesting counterpoint to this chapter which focuses on the skills of the sighted pedestrian.
“It matters not where or how far you travel – the further commonly the worse – but how much alive your are.” This Henry David Thoreau quote which Horowitz uses as an epigraph to one of her chapters captures the spirit of the book. With the help of all these experts, Horowitz claims to be more alive. They have trained her to look, and to look closely, to pay attention, especially to the trivial and commonplace. They have provided her with sets of expectations and ways of seeing that enable her to see what she had previously ignored or never imagined existed.
I could not help but think about the analogy between Horowitz’s self-education project and our students’ encounters with the general education and major-based curriculums. Are professors not asking students to take walks with them and to see the world as they see it, hoping that their students can, at least temporarily, make use of and delight in the special lenses that they have provide. How to Read Like a Professor, a text that I’ve used in my literature classes, acknowledges in its title this broad educational mission. Horowitz’s book wisely and gently promotes “multi-perspectivism,” a number of points of view flexibly applied as each new situation warrants. I’m eager for my next urban and to make some of Horowitz’s practices my own.