James Elkins’s How to Use Your Eyes invites us to look at–and maybe to see for the first time–the world around us, with breathtaking results. Here are the common artifacts of life, often misunderstood and largely ignored, brought into striking focus. With the discerning eye of a painter and the zeal of a detective, Elkins explores complicated things like mandalas, the periodic table, or a hieroglyph, remaking the world into a treasure box of observations–eccentric, ordinary, marvelous.
Review From Publishers Weekly
How does one read an X-ray? What do the markings on a butterfly’s wings mean? Why do the colors in a sunset always come in a certain order? Elkins (What Painting Is) answers these and other questions in this engaging guide to little-noticed and little-understood elements of the natural and technological worlds. “It’s about stopping and taking the time to simply look,” explains Elkins. If you learn to look at things in the right way, Elkins believes, the world around you “will gather before your eyes and become thick with meaning.” Much of his book focuses on such “universally unnoticed” objects as twigs and stamps; in one chapter he demonstrates how to identify trees in winter by the leaf scars on their twigs, while in another he shows how stamp artistry reveals crucial details about the time and place of its use. Elkins also probes more esoteric subjects such as mandalas and Chinese characters (which are vastly more complicated than popularly thought in the West). This variety of topic seems intended to catch a wide array of reader interests, but it eventually feels like a thin pretext for discussing wildly dissimilar material. Still, most of the topics are interestingDespecially the chapter on “ice halos” (magical rainbow-like rings that form around the sun during the winter)Dand Elkins proves himself an enthusiastic, fun guide. With dozens of full-color photographs, this is a great book for the coffee table. (Nov) .
Review From Scientific American
Elkins, associate professor of art history, theory and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, says that our eyes are too good for us, taking in so many things that we tend to focus only on what is important at the moment. “What happens if we stop and take the time to look more carefully? Then the world unfolds like a flower, full of colors and shapes that we had never suspected.” Whereupon he takes close looks at 31 things and at “nothing.” (Looking at nothing, he observes, turns out to be quite hard to do: “Our eyes will not stop seeing, even when they have to invent the world from nothing.”) Among the 31 things are an old painting (not for its picture but for its craquelure, which reveals much about the history of the painting), an x-ray, the periodic table and a sunset. The result is a book that is visually stunning and mentally stimulating.