Cognition Log:
Seeing What Is Seen
7 November 2014

It can take a while to see things — to see, that is, that you have seen them.

Take the view from the new apartment. I saw it right away, of course, but I didn’t see what I had seen for several weeks.

Whenever we talk about the move, we regret that we’ll be losing our great view. It is a great view, and it is still a great view thirty years later, only slightly diminished by the many apartment towers that have been built along its periphery since we took possession. These blocked our view of the Triborough and Hell Gate bridges, but the vista, the long view not into but entirely across Queens County — the North Shore Towers, right across the Nassau County Line, glimmer on the horizon — has never been disturbed. In the middle distance, planes take off and land at LaGuardia. We can’t see the airport, except for a tiny strip of runway at the extreme eastern edge, but following the path of a flight coming in from the south can provide all the amusement that a tired mind needs, especially if it’s Friday afternoon, and the planes are coming in at the rate of nearly one per minute. And this middle distance is still so far away that we don’t hear a thing: only in the dampest weather does the reversal of a landing jet’s engines occasionally sound its thunder. We even have an interesting strip of the East River. Even if we can’t see the bridge, we can see Hell Gate itself, where the tides might be boiling. It happens that our view is parallel, not perpendicular, to that stretch of the water, so that boats sail to and fro, not by.

Although more than a thousand apartments face ours, from First, York, and East End Avenues, we cannot, aside from a few windows on the next building down 86th Street, peer into anyone else’s home without the aid of powerful binoculars. Only at night does the flickering of television screens remind us that those slabs of brick are inhabited. When the sun sets in the summer, it turns them into cliffs and mesas from a Southwestern landscape.

But this is the view from the balcony. The view from the apartment — from the living room — is of the largely blank side wall of the next building down the street. Four vernacular buildings — what we call walkups — and a bit of our building’s garage stand between here and there, so the building is not oppressively close. Nevertheless, it presents nothing but a wall of bricks. That’s what you see through the living room window when you walk into the apartment, and the view does not change until you approach the balcony door.

Our apartment has no view at all.

The new apartment has a lovely view. It puts me in mind of Greenwich Village. Through the tops of the trees on either side of 87th Street, we see a row of handsome Victorian buildings, interrupted by one mildly Gothic façade. The buildings on our side of the street are undistinguished, but of course we can’t see them. Unlike the view from our apartment, the new view is long on charm, and I hope to make that charm the keynote of our new living room. It was only when I was struggling to explain this to Kathleen that I realized that the new apartment has a view.


Similarly, as I was reading the final pages of John Carey’s The Unexpected Professor, I understood how conventional book reviews work, and at the same time understood why I was trying to avoid writing them — which is to say that I saw what I had seen. The conventional book review is nothing  more than a nosegay of impressions, offered in the hope that at least one of the blossoms will inspire a reader to buy the book. (I’m talking about favorable book reviews, of course. I don’t give much thought to the other kind.) I finally understood that I understood this when I was struggling to remember what it was that had given me the idea that I might enjoy The Unexpected Professor. I don’t think that I’ve seen it reviewed, although I may be wrong about that — but it doesn’t matter. All it took was one effective mention. No doubt the local context was important. But it’s quite clear that I was not persuaded to buy Professor Carey’s delightful memoir by a carefully-reasoned essay.

Carefully-reasoned essays occasionally appear as book reviews, but they’re usually quite long, and directed to a community in which the author, the reviewer, and the reader(s) figure, in one way or another, as professional colleagues. Essays of this kind actually made the TLS such a boring read for me that I gave it up. I cannot be persuaded to buy books. If I allowed that to happen, I’d be bankrupt in a month, and homeless, too, not on account of the bankruptcy but because the stacks of books would leave no room for me. There are simply too many books that I ought to read! Happily, I don’t want to read the books that I’m supposed to read. Something else is necessary.

Sacks’s immersion in science was rapturous, akin to what less gifted boys might find in sexual awakening. (294)

That’s John Carey on Oliver Sacks’s Uncle Tungsten. It doesn’t make me want to read Sacks, but it points to the kind of thrill that makes me pick up a book not out of duty but with desire. That desire is frequently transitory — all too often, the book that I must read right now has little or nothing to offer next week — and I am sometimes ashamed of my capriciousness. But my pleasure is both authentic and keen. I wouldn’t say that it is altogether effortless, but I can say that I’m never putting any effort into enjoying myself (except in the case of reading Ivy Compton Burnett, where making effort is the perverse jolly).

And that’s what I want to write about — that pleasure. If this means that I don’t provide a dutifully comprehensive summary of a book’s contents, then so much the better. You won’t miss it.

Bon weekend à tous!