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Book review: On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2014. Book review: On looking: eleven walks with expert eyes. Technical Communication 61(2):127-128.

Alexandra Horowitz. 2013. New York, NY: Scribner. [ISBN 978-1-4391-9125-5. 310 pages, including index. US$27.00.]

Sight is so basic that when we have it, we take it for granted. Yet seeing is a learned skill that requires an ability to winnow one or a few signals from the visual chaff by knowing what deserves our focus. In On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, Alexandra Horowitz takes us to explore her New York neighborhood with expert seers (and one important non-expert) to reveal the ways that different people focus and their different focal priorities. Her guides: geologist, typographer, illustrator, naturalist, wildlife researcher, urban sociologist, doctor, blind woman, sound designer, and dog. The difficulty of perceiving any situation holistically without the benefit of multiple guides quickly becomes clear. Horowitz learns to draw inferences from environmental clues that go beyond literal sights, including clues derived from the absence of overt signs. She learns that “everything visible has a history”, but that it takes training to detect this history and the many events occurring behind the scenes of the main event we’re focusing on with untrained eyes.

Horowitz’s non-expert guide is her toddler, who’s just learning to walk and integrate what he sees into a worldview, and who teaches Mom the pleasure of seeing the world anew through a child’s eyes. Unexpectedly, this chapter provides powerful insights for technical communicators: that our audience, whatever their age, approach our subject with the naïve, untrained eyes of a toddler, and that our goal is to teach them to see what we’ve learned to see with our expert eyes. Each sees the world differently—our visual priorities differ—but with the right guide, anyone can learn to see clearly. Experts follow (often nonlinear) paths that are invisible to us, but can teach us to see and follow those paths. The sound designer and blind woman remind us how many unseen (literally “invisible”) paths we miss until someone reveals them.

As technical communicators, we must decide what to reveal and how. We become the audience’s expert guide in learning to see, and to succeed, we must first understand what they do not see so we can account for that untutored perspective. When we reach out to an audience, it’s like dealing with Horowitz’s toddler: we provide a safe framework in which they can re-envision their world, whether by seeing in new ways or in old ways they’ve forgotten. Our communication prepares them to see by displaying what to expect, the context in which to expect it, and how to recognize when the unexpected occurs.

Horowitz’s writing is friendly, nontechnical, and as peripatetic as the wide-eyed author’s physical wanderings. As a scientist, she can’t resist delving into the science, but it’s unintimidating and an ironic reminder of how our preoccupations bias what we share with others. Besides being a pleasant travelogue, On Looking is a friendly reminder to periodically look at our world with fresh eyes.


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