A manifesto opens John R. Stilgoe's new book, Outside Lies Magic. Thoreau would have been proud of it:"Get out now. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of our century. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run . . . Walk. Stroll. Saunter . . . Explore."Exploration is Stilgoe's theme in this pithy, spirited, heartfelt little book. For what they reveal about his preoccupations, it's worthwhile to list a couple of the author's previous books Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb and Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene. Stilgoe is an explorer who knows full well that he doesn't have to journey to Surinam for the exotic or to Luxor for history. Sometimes the fantastic is merely the prosaic viewed in a new light. Stilgoe is a master at providing that thoughtful light. By doing so he illuminates the everyday world most of us live in, the world of strip malls and highways and back yards. Stilgoe is Professor of Landscape History at Harvard, where he teaches what he calls the art of exploring. "Exploring as I teach it," he writes, "depends heavily on understanding the pasts that swirl around any explorer of ordinary landscape." Stilgoe describes storm drains and fire hydrants as touchable links with larger concepts the history of a community, of an era, still visible around us, fossilized in the furniture of everyday life. Early on, Stilgoe describes the focus on visual acuity, on standards and taste in everything from shrubbery to furniture, that once comprised much of a liberal education. As he sketches the idea's demise in the early part of this century, the reader understands why so much of the modern American landscape despite money and materials to spare is so ugly and soulless. And how a revival of such notions on an individual basis (he isn't optimist enough to imagine a society-wide metamorphosis) could improve individual lives and, ultimately, the social space we all share.
Stilgoe's classes at Harvard, and this book, are designed to encourage the rarest of educational goals teaching the art of thinking for yourself. "Personal observations and encounters in the most ordinary of landscapes can and will raise questions and issues routinely avoided by programmed educational and entertainment authorities." Anyone who reads this book will inevitably view the interstate service station, electric wires, the rural mailbox, even lawns and pigeons with a new perspective. Seeing the world around you, rather than floating through it like a robot, alerts the eyes, jolts the brain and challenges society. It's ambitious and rewarding. It's fun. "Whoever owns the real estate and its constituents, the explorer owns the landscape. And the explorer owns all the insights, all the magic that comes from looking." And who are the explorers? You and I.
Reviewed by Michael Sims.