Once, when I was much younger and life seemed much slower, I saw something quite familiar, really saw it, for the very first time. Lolling in carefree boredom late one afternoon, I found my right hand especially close to my eye. And in the soft warm light of dusk, I saw the contours and textures of my hand in a way I never had before. I noted the graceful peaks and valleys of the knuckles, bones, and veins, the skin nuanced with shading and crosshatched with the narrowest lines, the finest hair, seeming almost an illusion.
With his new book "How to Use Your Eyes," James Elkins revels in that same sense of discovery and wonder, only his is not a momentary observation but a thorough investigation. Instead of the whole hand, he focuses in on the fingerprint, explaining and illustrating the different patterns of whorls, loops, and arches that make each unique.
Visually, "How to Use Your Eyes" is a gorgeous, coffee-table book. But substantively, it is an intriguing and compelling invitation to really look at things we too often take for granted. As he writes, "It's about stopping and taking the time simply to look, and keep looking, until the details of the world slowly reveal themselves."
A professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, Elkins divides the book into two parts - "Things Made by Man" and "Things Made by Nature." Of the natural world, Elkins includes a fascinating examination of the human face - how it ages and what it tells us about a person's life. He also examines grass, twigs, sand, and ways to look at the night sky and ice halos. He explains what the colors of the sunset tell us. There is an intriguing chapter on "How to Look at a Moth's Wings" that not only urges us to look more closely at the muted brown creatures we distractedly swat, but to notice commonalities of patterns and what they mean.
Of "Things Made by Man," some chapters are more engaging than others. The chapter on stamps makes the case that most of today's electronically reproduced stamps are far less intriguing than the engraved little works of art that once dominated. However, few of us will have access to the first postage stamp, England's "Penny Black," to which Elkins devotes most of the chapter. The chapter on Linear B, the script used for the Mycenean language of ancient Crete is even more obscure, and "How to Look at an Engineering Drawing" is particularly abstruse.
However, the chapters on how to look at Chinese and Japanese characters, with their often pictorial allusions, is fascinating, as are the sections on Egyptian heiroglyphs and scarabs. Elkins's approach to viewing oil paintings is less art appreciation than textural investigation, suggesting viewers hone in on the fine networks of cracks that score old works and give clues to a painting's history and origin.
He shies away from the architectural marvels of the world's great bridges (which actually would have made a fine addition) and focuses instead on culverts, the drainage edifices that pass under roadways. Though they are far more common, they are far less noticed, and they often tell us much about the surrounding land as well as the people nearby, whose detritus is carried away by the rushing water.
"How to Use Your Eyes" is not for the impatient. It is instead an often eloquent invitation to slow down and look carefully. And in doing so, we may not only find pleasure in discovery, but in the process of observation.
Karen Campbell is a freelance writer in Boston.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society