Sunday, February 24, 2013

What we see, or miss, when out in the world

Winnipeg Free Press —PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes 
By Alexandra Horowitz
Scribner, 320 pages, $30

NEW YORKER Alexandra Horowitz is a psychologist with a PhD in cognitive science. She's studied rhinoceroses, bonobos and humans, but it was when she turned her attention to dogs, specifically to her own dog Pumpernickel, that she found her niche.

The result was the international bestseller Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know (2009), which combined Horowitz's observations of her pet with current research.

Her intriguing followup is about what humans see - and what we miss and why - when out in the world.

Horowitz begins On Looking by walking around her own block and describing what she sees. She then retraces her steps with a variety of experts, including a geologist, a sound designer and a blind person, as well as with her dog and infant son.

One of the problems with the book is that the conceit she sells early on - to the extent that she uses quotes from her initial essay as epigraphs for the essays that follow - is flabby.

While three of the chapters stay close to home, literally walking the walk, other chapters adapt themselves to Horowitz's companions' areas of interest. So we loiter downtown for our walk with the font nerd and experience the crowds of Broadway with the urban sociologist but also travel to Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

And so readers lose the baseline of the original itinerary, trading the intimacy of Horowitz's block for Anytown, U.S.A.

And while Horowitz is an eloquent and affable host on these walks, she sometimes veers towards the precious, confiding in a footnote, for instance, that her footnotes are nowhere near as surprising and original as those of Oliver Sacks.

More troubling is her apology for using technical terms in this excerpt from her walk with Sidney Horenstein of the American Museum of Natural History: "One risks, in writing about geology, numbing one's readership with the terminology. Schist, gneiss, phyllite; metamorphic, sedimentary, siliciclastic, schistosity. It can be dizzying. I sympathize. I hear 'Paleozoic' and I nearly drop right into a deep sleep."

It is counter-intuitive, almost bewildering, to hear a scientist apologize for talking science. Isn't that why we read books of popular science?

In addition, U.S. publisher Scribner has chosen to include some of the Horowitz's line drawings with the text, but their postage-stamp size means that they're too small to be of any real use as illustrations. And while it is lovely to see the paintings that came from Horowitz's walk with artist Maira Kalman, the two colour plates seem somehow out of place.

These quibbles aside, On Looking is a quietly illuminating study of how human beings process all the information available to them when doing something like going for a walk. Particularly interesting is Horowitz's analysis of how expertise changes the brain.

Of course, the answer to the question "How do I keep myself from missing things?" is "You have to spend time looking!"

But just as being able to guess the murderer halfway through a mystery isn't always fatal, it doesn't matter here either, because Horowitz reminds us of the specific wealth of what there is to see: animals and rocks and buildings and people, smells and sounds and textures.

Finally, as non-fiction devotees know, one of the pleasures of the genre is that even though you might not be wholly persuaded by the main thesis, you're certain to pick up nuggets of useful and novel information.

Like the notion that typhoid is supposed to smell like "freshly baked brown bread," and that rats produce a particular sound "to accompany pain or social defeat, and oddly, ejaculation."

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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