"You know when you notice something and you think 'Oh, that's interesting'?" asks Alan Fletcher, a graphic designer in London. "It could be anything: a flower between the pavement. It's interesting or nice, and then 10 minutes later you've forgotten. And then it's gone forever. So I began making notes, just little notes to remind myself. Then I put them in my pocket."
During the next 30 years, Fletcher's pockets spilled over into scrapbooks, journals, file cabinets, and drawers. Now, they're compressed into a box of a book entitled "The Art of Looking Sideways."
Had the book come with an index, under "W" you would find: Wilde and Wolfe, Warhol and Walpole, Welch (Racquel, that is) and Weng His-Chih (a 4th-century Chinese calligrapher). Their aphorisms and art, along with samples from Fletcher's own portfolio (he's his own No. 1 contributor), fill these 500 pages.
Throughout, random obscurities blip from the author's mind: Did you know that after his death, the ashes of Mark Gruenwald, the editor of Marvel Comics, were stirred into ink to print a special edition?
Such bric-a-brac coheres around loose themes like "seeing," "synchronicity," and "meanings." "Pattern" begins with a modern rendering of leopard spots on King Tut's stool. Later, we learn that the Australian bower bird adorns its nest with orchids and colorful fruit juices to attract females.
Fletcher offers his own definition of pattern: "Akin to tidying up and putting things in order, it is probably a by-product of plaiting and weaving..... Perhaps it began by someone noticing the imprint left by a basket in the earth, the foliage of a tree against the sky, the tracks of a bird in the snow."
Like so much else in the book, this last idea is simply thrown out there. "It's opening these little windows," Fletcher says.
Sometimes, the windows lead unexpectedly to a discovery. To answer the question, "What is creativity?" Fletcher fills two pages with quotes from disparate intellectuals who offer pretty much the same, but not-at-all-obvious answer: "the joining of two previously incompatible ideas," in the words of biologist Lyall Watson - or, according to Heraclitus: "The unlike is joined together, and from difference results the most beautiful harmony."
Intellectual hopscotch makes "The Art of Looking Sideways" frustrating to read from start to finish. But the same quality makes it a wonderful bank of conversation topics.
Fletcher also provides insight into the ability to look at a question or an object with a fresh pair of eyes: "Unless your mind's free about it, it just gets labored."
Michael R. Fainelli is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Mass.
"The art of Looking Sideways" By Alan Fletcher Phaidon 533 pp., $39.95