John R. Stilgoe,
Outside Lies Magic:
Regaining History and
Awareness in Everyday Places

(Walker & Co., 1998)

Get out of your car, out of your everyday routine and go for a walk. These are the two basic ideas in Outside Lies Magic. John R. Stilgoe has been teaching the art of exploration for more than 20 years, encouraging his students to look beyond the ordinary, teaching them to see the overlooked patterns and places of the American landscape. The tools are easy to come by -- eyes, feet, curiousity -- and the rewards are unimaginably rich.

Stilgoe begins by laying out his philosophy. It centers around the idea that simply noticing the things normally taken for granted will teach us a great deal about the human-built environment we inhabit. Everything has a lesson, from the direction and type of power lines above the streets, to the shape and maker of man-hole covers, to the direction and width of city streets. Paying attention to these lessons can help us learn how our cities took shape, what they looked like before cars and electricity and the other "improvements" of modern life.

In nine short chapters, Outside Lies Magic takes us through a number of concrete examples of Stilgoe's explorers art. These examples range from power lines, to railroad right-of-ways, to interstate motel placement, to the birth and death of shopping strips and main streets. With each example he shows us something fascinating and unexpected within the ordinary. Each chapter also gives the reader ideas on how to explore the everyday with an eye for underlying causes and effects.

Far from being some kind of encyclopedia of mundane wonder, Outside Lies Magic is really a guidebook to exploring on your own. Stilgoe's examples pique your curiousity and make you want to ask why about everything you see, especially the things you see everyday but never noticed before. Reading this book will change your impressions of the world around you and make you ask "Why?" about almost everything you see. Hopefully it will also encourage you to go out and hunt down the answers.

[ by Ziya Reynolds ]

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