Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book Review: On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz

I walk a lot. And that's an understatement. I have walked an entire marathon (7 hours, 20 minutes). It hasn't been unusual for me to walk 10+ miles on a weekend day. Now that I've moved, my walking is different--I walk a mile to the train station every morning, and back home. And I have to walk from Penn Station to the subway station. And on Thursday evenings I walk to Penn Station. And on Friday mornings I walk from Penn Station. Without even trying, I usually log about 30 miles a week. And sometimes more. Last week I was on an Alaska cruise. I went on three walks as excursions. I even logged one 3+ miles day without ever leaving the ship (and it wasn't a huge ship!)

That said, these walks get boring, fast. Right now it's glorious to walk down shady streets of slate sidewalks between beautiful Victorian homes. But eventually I'm going to be thinking, "Yep, it's the purple one again. And when will the blue house mow their lawn? And why is there always furniture in front of the yellow house for trash pickup? Do they have any furniture left in the house? Where does it come from?" And I find that when walks get boring, they get slow. Ms. Horowitz postulates the opposite--that when walks are boring they go quickly--but that's not at all my personal experience. When there's nothing to entertain me, they're interminably long. Therefore, I plan to stave that off, partly by reading this book! Ms. Horowitz walks a city block (mostly the one in her NYC neighborhood which is a triangle, not a square, so 3 streets) with 11 "experts." Now, the experts vary in expertise. One in her toddler son and one is her dog. But one is an expert in fonts and lettering, one on stones and rocks, and one on ordinary city animals like raccoons. They all opened my eyes. The doctor could diagnose skeletal problems just by people's gaits. The stone guy could identify not just the type of rock on the side of each building, but he knew where it was from ("Knoxville, Tennessee limestone.") The lettering on the recently defunct NYC Taxi logo really infuriated the lettering expert. Her son was fascinated by stand-pipes.

I wish she's delved deeper. I wish she'd had an architect as some of the buildings are just stunning, even decrepit and vacant ones. I wish she'd had an expert in garbage. (No, I'm not being funny.) I wish she'd had a psychiatrist to talk about the homeless problem and to tell me if the guy on 32nd St. and 6th Ave. who dances in the street to his headphones is just happy and energetic, or if he has mental issues I should worry about.

But it was a lot of information in a relatively thin book. I should have parceled it out over a longer timeframe. Instead I was looking at and listening to everything all at once instead of just one at a time. This book will keep me interested in my commute and actively participating instead of zoning out, for many months to come. It is a slow read ideally, so be prepared for that. Also, I wish ALL of the walks had been on the same blocks and unfortunately they weren't--sometimes she went to the experts instead of them coming to her. But I really enjoyed it. Mostly we think about walking in the woods, and it's refreshing to read about walking in the city.

I checked this book out of the library.

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