The best books for discovering how to see

Janet Sternburg Author Of Janet Sternburg - I've Been Walking
By Janet Sternburg

The Books I Picked & Why

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry

By Jane Hirschfield

Book cover of Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry

Why this book?

In order to retrieve my sense of seeing in the present, I went to my second home in Mexico, read a little each morning, and then went walking without any destination. This is the book I was reading those mornings in Mexico, before my walks. It may seem odd to start with a book about poetry, but this one opened the gate to seeing and to taking my first photograph.

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Mr. Palomar

By Italo Calvino

Book cover of Mr. Palomar

Why this book?

Mr. Palomar, the hero, is named for the great observatory in California, and he, Mr. Palomar, is the Great Observer. He walks, he wonders about what he sees, and how, in a miraculous universe, such a thing could exist. It’s not a page-turner. It’s a page stopper. I savored each page, seeing the smallest thing – a rock, for example -- as Mr.Palomar sees it. Then I suggest that you put the book down, go out into the world, and see everything as an object of wonder.

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Nothing Special

By Charlotte Joko Beck, Steven A. Smith

Book cover of Nothing Special

Why this book?

This is a book that gets obstacles for seeing out of the way. This is the book I turn to if I’m sad, unsure, not confident. It’s not that this Zen master makes me happy or sure of myself. No, she puts my life in perspective: What is the big deal? I imagine her saying. You are a small thing in the universe. But while you are here, it's important to do your work. Read it and you’ll be back in the river, whisked along in the current, one more unimportant but vitally aware part of the great stream of life.

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The Coroner's Lunch

By Colin Cotterill

Book cover of The Coroner's Lunch

Why this book?

Surprise! A murder mystery, a whodunnit, and in this instance a wildly untraditional one about the delightful Dr. Siri. The first of a series about an old man who has to do a job he doesn’t want – coroner to Vientiane in Laos in the seventies – and discovers that he is inhabited by his very own and shaman. He gathers around him a cast of characters from his wife and peerless noodle maker, to Mr. Ding, his assistant in the morgue. Each and all see the humor in every occasion and is a force for the good.

I love these books, and I'm also using them as stand-ins for other books – whether murder mysteries or spy stories or science fiction. They will help you to see because you will relax, get caught up in the stories, forget all the other things you have to do, and put yourself in the mood to venture out into the world and see it with more playful and attentive eyes.

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The Photographer's Eye

By John Szarkowski, William Klein, Paul Strand, Lee Friedlander, Walker Evans

Book cover of The Photographer's Eye

Why this book?

At last, a book about photography! And one that is arguably the best from which to learn to see, Szarkowski, the legendary curator who worked at the Museum from 1962 to 1991, has published many influential books. But none more radically and succinctly demonstrates why - as U.S. News & World Report put it in 1990 - his thinking about photography "has become our thinking about photography".

Look and look and look. Keep it on your bedside table. It will be your friend. Learn from it – about composition, about story, about the many ways that one can see. Whether you take a photograph or not, you will learn that ineffable thing that can’t be taught but which can be inspired: how to see. Enjoy!

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