Book Review: On Looking – Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

A fabulous blogger whom I hold in great respect turned me on to Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. And who was I to resist eleven walks with expert eyes? If the whole point of life is to see a little better, then I’m all for a book that can expand my vision.

Here’s some of what I really liked about the book:
• The expert walk vignettes are very engaging, and Horowitz has a beautifully poetic writing style. The book is a joy to read. I finished it in two sittings, one of them late into the night. This is thriller-level readability, folks.
• The experts really do have super x-ray vision in their domains. Their vision is so different, in fact, that when you enter their world, you feel as if you’re moving around in a virtual reality overlay of a whole new dimension. Plants, animals, insects, rocks, letters, sounds you had never considered, all rise to attention’s surface in 3-D relief.
• The book is a bounty of fun esoteric facts: Raccoons can fit through a four-inch hole; squirrels, a quarter-size one; mice, dime-sized. The word “thigmotaxic” rocks. Instead of teeth, slugs have a “radula”, a jagged tongue-like thing that leaves spiral marks on tree bark. Dogs first smell with the right nostril, then with the left once a scent becomes familiar.
• The experts themselves are delightful characters. The mixture of their quirkiness and deep expertise makes you wish you could sit down for coffee with each and every one of them. Since that’s probably not going to happen, we’re lucky to have this book.

What I didn’t like about the book:
• It contains mistakes — unpardonable mistakes of the kind that should get an editor fired. If you are keen-scented, you are macrosmatic, not macrosomatic (which means you have a bigger than normal body). You can have an obstructed bronchus, but not an obstructed bronchi. You don’t have a mitrial valve, but you do have a mitral one. Concentric is a word; coencentric isn’t. These would be minor lapses elsewhere, but in a book that is equal parts literature and science, they throw a faint light of doubt on everything else the author says. I picked up these mistakes because it’s stuff I happened to study in school. Are there similar mistakes in the chapters on geology, zoology and acoustics that I would never catch? It makes the whole book feel slightly unreliable. I’m hoping they fixed these in the paperback edition.

• The title promises “eleven walks with expert eyes.” Two of the walks happen to be with the author’s toddler son and her dog. While I will not challenge the kid and dog’s expertise in the domains of kidhood and dogdom, I do doubt their ability to convey their perceptions to us accurately and fluently. In fact, I suspect the words come from the mom/owner. It’s a fun conceit, and it almost works: the exercise of looking through the eyes of a kid and a dog are worthwhile. But I can do that myself any day: the words are not from the experts themselves. Either call the book “nine walks with expert eyes, with two bonus walks with my kid and dog thrown in for kicks”, or give me two more real experts – a photographer, an historian, a physicist, an architect.

• The promise of the book is to expand our vision: walks with expert eyes, sometimes “eyes” being a legitimate metaphor for non-visual perceptual domains like sound or smell. But above all, this is a book about the visual world. And Horowitz does a masterful job of describing the complexity her experts convey.

But where are the pictures?!? Yes, there are a few impressionistic doodles of a mouse, a turning head and a flock of birds, and there’s a lovely print of Maira Kalman’s blue couch painting (meaning that the publishers are fully capable of putting perfectly nice color photos in the book, and still didn’t). But as I was reading, I was dying to see the pictures. No number of words can properly convey the difference between basalt, granite and schist in a way that would give me 0.1% of the expertise of the book’s geologist, Sidney Horenstein. I want to actually SEE the bryozoans and the crinoids in the limestone so I can spot them when I’m walking around Manhattan. I want to see a Trendelenburg gait. Show me a darn picture of the typefaces, egg cases, exuviae, galls, mounds, nests you’re describing so they come to life and I can recognize them, too. Isn’t that the whole point of the book?

And where are the videos? If Proust had a video camera, he totally would have used it for his books. So in the year 2013, there’s no reason for us to limit ourselves to mere words when you can stick a few 2-minute videos in an enhanced ebook (e.g. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which is a book for the ages, does this very effectively). Especially if a book is about walks: take me on a video walk! If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a million. Even with her considerable verbal skill, Horowitz’s words (or anyone’s, for that matter) cannot ever succeed in describing human gait in a way that can compete with the instant, massive processing power of the human visual system. Here was an opportunity not only for effective pedagogy, but also for making this book a classic for the ages instead of just entertainment. Also, if you’re listening, Mr Simon and Mr Schuster: books with pictures sell more because people like ’em. More pictures next time, please.

In the end, the book is still delightful, and I can see myself picking it up and re-reading sections for years to come. At the same time, I can’t help but feel that there was a missed opportunity for this book to be an even more epic adventure – one that not only entertains, but also truly broadens our vision and understanding.

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