The best books for discovering how to see

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

Who am I?

I'm a writer and a late-life fine arts photographerFor eight years I had been writing a book set in the personal and historical past. I would sit at the computer, shut my eyes, and say to myself, “Go deeper.” Eventually, I was able to recall long-forgotten details. When I looked up from those years of writing, the memoir, entitled Phantom Limb, was finished and being published. However, I discovered that I could no longer see – really see – what was around me. Along the way, I had lost that alert attention to the way light falls, to colors that used to hit me between the eyes. I felt the loss deeply. I’ve always loved to look. I had to do something to summon it back.

I wrote...

Janet Sternburg - I've Been Walking

By Janet Sternburg,

Book cover of Janet Sternburg - I've Been Walking

What is my book about?

I’ve Been Walking, the new monograph from writer and photographer Janet Sternburg captures the soul of Los Angeles as it slowed to a stop. When the streets emptied in Spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sternburg donned a mask and gloves and took a camera into her neighborhood of Little Tokyo. She explored the surrounding area, using photographs to capture her journey. “For a while I walked through Los Angeles’ empty streets, seeing mostly what was desolate,” she writes. “Then I started to see traces of human presence. I walked photographing what I’ve come to think of as a kind of fullness—an enlargement of the senses that can be found in the midst of emptiness. I do not mean to turn the griefs and losses caused by COVID-19 into artistic gain. I do mean that we are enlarged when we become part of the landscape of all of us.”

I’ve Been Walking expresses profound humanity, gesturing toward the social and personal resonances of the 2020 shutdown.

The books I picked & why

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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.

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry

By Jane Hirschfield,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nine Gates as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Gate Enables passage between what is inside and what is outside, and the connection poetry forges between inner and outer lives is the fundamental theme of these nine essays.

Nine Gates begins with a close examination of the roots of poetic craft in "the mind of concentration" and concludes by exploring the writer's role in creating a sense of community that is open, inclusive and able to bind the individual and the whole in a way that allows each full self-expression. in between, Nine Gates illumines the nature of originality, translation, the various strategies by which meaning unfolds itself…


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.

Mr. Palomar

By Italo Calvino,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mr. Palomar as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mr Palomar is a delightful eccentric whose chief activity is looking at things. He is seeking knowledge; 'it is only after you have come to know the surface of things that you can venture to seek what is underneath'. Whether contemplating a fine cheese, a hungry gecko, a woman sunbathing topless or a flight of migrant starlings, Mr Palomar's observations render the world afresh.


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.

Nothing Special

By Charlotte Joko Beck, Steven A. Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nothing Special as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WHEN NOTHING IS SPECIAL, EVERYTHING CAN BE

The best-selling author of 'Everyday Zen' shows how to awaken to daily life and discover the ideal in the everyday, finding riches in our feelings, relationships, and work. 'Nothing Special' offers the rare and delightful experience of learning in the authentic Buddhist tradition with a wonderfully contemporary Western master.


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.

The Coroner's Lunch

By Colin Cotterill,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Coroner's Lunch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Laos in the year 1976, the monarchy has been deposed, and the Communist Pathet Lao have taken over. Most of the educated class has fled, but Dr Siri Paiboun, a Paris-trained doctor remains. And so this 72-year-old physician is appointed state coroner, despite having no training, equipment, experience or even inclination for the job. But the job's not that bad and Siri quickly settles into a routine of studying outdated medical texts, scrounging scarce supplies, and circumnavigating bureaucratic red tape to arrive at justice. The fact that the recently departed are prone to pay Siri the odd, unwanted nocturnal…


The Photographer's Eye

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

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!

The Photographer's Eye

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

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Photographer's Eye as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Photographer's Eye, available again after some years out of print, offers a guide to the medium's visual language through works by such early masters as Atget, Cartier-Bresson, Evans, Strand and Weston. In this re-issue, 172 illustrations reveal the extraordinary range of the photograph from the early days of the medium's development to the mid-1960s. They are accompanied by an essay from Szarkowski, one of the most influential photography curators and critics of our time.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in poetry, zen, and Buddhism?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about poetry, zen, and Buddhism.

Poetry Explore 267 books about poetry
Zen Explore 70 books about zen
Buddhism Explore 190 books about Buddhism

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like A Short History of Laos, Air America, and A Dragon Apparent if you like this list.