Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Arts of Noticing

Earlier this month, Austin Kleon's newsletter tipped me off to a book called The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker, which sounded like something I'd like. I really enjoyed Freeman Patterson's Photography and the Art of Seeing for the lessons it offered on close observation, and I figured Walker's book might provide something similar.

When I looked it up at my library, I discovered a second The Art of Noticing in the system, this one by an author named Mary Coons. It wasn't the book I was looking for, but I couldn't resist the synchronicity. I requested both versions, and both showed up the same day.

Coons is an Indiana writer and illustrator, and her book is a collection of short personal essays. Some touch on writing and creativity, others on her family history, and some are simply life observations. I didn't know what to expect, but parts of the book are very charming, and I enjoyed spending time with her stories. At one point she makes an offhand reference to Pride and Prejudice, and by chance it got me to thinking. 

Every now and then I get rid of a book I really enjoyed, and I always seem to regret it. That was the case with Pride and Prejudice. I loved reading it, but my personal copy landed in a Goodwill pile for one reason or another, and I've always wished I held on to it.

So a couple years ago, I began looking. Not just for Pride and Prejudice, but for the exact Bantam Classics edition I read in my high school literature class. Maybe I was being sentimental, or maybe I just liked the challenge. Either way, I wouldn't accept anything less than that particular edition.

Since beginning my search, I haven't walked into a Goodwill or a used bookstore without checking for that particular book. And because of that, it's taken on a kind of cosmic significance. I started thinking of it almost as some kind of an omen—if I ever found the book it would be the universe's way of telling me something big was just around the next corner.

But the universe chose to stay silent. I even bought a Goodwill copy of Jane Austen's Persuasion to try and meet it halfway, but this did nothing to impress the powers that be. I continued to come home empty-handed.

All these thoughts were stirred up while I read Mary Coons, and so I happened to glance at my shelves. There, sitting right next to Persuasion as if it had never been gone, was the Bantam Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice.

I was dumbfounded. I got up and pulled the book off the shelf, then flipped through the pages. I'm not sure what I expected to find. Maybe a note tucked behind the front cover, or some passage meaningfully underlined. Anything to give a hint about what, exactly, just happened. Was this my own private example of the Mandela effect? Or had I just been confused all along? Because now my copy of Sense and Sensibility was missing. Was that the book I'd actually been looking for?

In hopes of confirming that I hadn't lost my mind, I started reading through my old daily journals. After spending so much time looking for that particular book, surely I made some reference to it. But no—after reading two years' worth of daily entries, there was absolutely no mention of Pride and Prejudice, or, for that matter, Sense and Sensibility. I did record the day I purchased Persuasion, but said nothing of the fact I was looking for a different book entirely.

Like the aftershock of any good Mandela effect, all I'm left with is the spooky sense that something in the world is not what it should be, even while the rational part of my brain keeps insisting that I'm the one who made the mistake. Interestingly enough, though, this whole experience is in line with the exercises in Rob Walker's The Art of Noticing.

Walker's book is more like a collection of games to help sharpen your skills of observation, similar to ones you might have played as a kid. Here are just a couple examples of the exercises Walker suggests:
  • Conduct a scavenger hunt
    Create a mental search image (dogs, Volkswagen Beetles, security cameras) and see how many you can find when you're in a new place.
  • Spot something new everyday
    During your familiar daily routines, work to spot and record something new—something you've never noticed about your environment before.
  • Count with the numbers you find
    Hunt for numbers in your environment, following numerical order (e.g., start by looking for 1, then look for 2, then 3, and so on).
  • Get there the hard way
    Going somewhere new? Dispense with your phone's GPS and write down the directions instead. If you get lost, that's part of the fun.

Walker's point seems to be that the way we observe our surroundings changes to the extent that we will it to change. We can fall into habit and routine, or we can set up new mental parameters before we go into familiar situations in order to discover things hidden in plain sight.

My constant search for the Bantam Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice (or was that Sense and Sensibility?) was just the kind of game Walker suggests. And because of it, Mary Coons' offhand line in a book I never intended to read sent me down this strange road—even if all it proves is that I'm far less observant than I'd like to believe.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...