How to Use Your Eyes  book cover
1st Edition

How to Use Your Eyes

ISBN 9780415993630
Published September 29, 2008 by Routledge
272 Pages 132 Color Illustrations

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Book Description

"... visually stunning and mentally stimulating."—Scientific American

"…the author of What Painting Is (1998) has written a fascinating new book filled with gorgeous illustrations that would inspire us ‘to learn to see anything.’ It's a tall order, to be sure, but one that the author pulls off admirably….How to Use Your Eyes is a wondrous visual tour that Elkins hopes will help us ‘learn to use our eyes more concertedly until the details of the world slowly reveal themselves.’ Readers will be inspired to stop and smell--nay, see--the roses."


"Elkins invites his readers to extend perception beyond narrow specialties to see meaning in the mundane. He is ever curious, his mind seemingly in overdrive."

Chicago Tribune Magazine

"In that fascinating zone where creative imagination and scientific observation meet, Elkins shines a conceptual flashlight, aiming to illuminate in 32 short chapters a fraction of what we are missing daily. He asks us to use our eyes and our minds differently, to see the world as few of us bother to see it because we rarely make the effort."—Library Journal

Grass, the night sky, a postage stamp, a crack in the sidewalk, a shoulder. Ordinary objects of everyday life.

But when we look at them—really look at them—what do we see?

In the tradition of John Berger’s bestselling Ways of Seeing, James Elkins’s How to Use your Eyes invites us to look at- and maybe 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. A butterfly's wing pattern encodes its identity. A cloudless sky yields a precise sequence of colors at sunset. A bridge reveals the relationship of a population with its landscape. With the discerning eye of a painter and the zeal of a detective, Elkins also explores complicated things like mandalas, the periodic table, or a hieroglyph, remaking the world into a treasure box of observations—eccentric, ordinary, marvelous. How to Use Your Eyes will transform your view of nature and the mind.

Table of Contents


Things Made By Man

1. how to look at A Postage Stamp

2. how to look at A Culvert

3. how to look at An Oil Painting

4. how to look at Pavement

5. how to look at An X Ray

6. how to look at Linear B

7. how to look at Chinese and Japanese Script

8. how to look at Egyptian Hieroglyphics

9. how to look at Egyptian Scarabs

10. how to look at An Engineering Drawing

11. how to look at a Rebus

12. how to look at Mandalas

13. how to look at Perspective Pictures

14. how to look at An Alchemical Emblem

15. how to look at Special Effects

16. how to look at The Periodic Table

17. how to look at A Map

Things Made By Nature

18. how to look at A Shoulder

19. how to look at A Face

20. how to look at A Fingerprint

21. how to look at Grass

22. how to look at A Twig

23. how to look at Sand

24. how to look at Moths’ Wings

25. how to look at Halos

26. how to look at Sunsets

27. how to look at Color

28. how to look at The Night

29. how to look at Mirages

30. how to look at A Crystal

31. how to look at The Inside of Your Eye

32. how to look at Nothing

Postscript: How Do We Look to a Scallop?

For Further Reading

Figure Credits

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James Elkins is E.C. Chadbourne Chair in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His many books include What Painting Is, Pictures and Tears, Stories of Art, Visual Studies, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, and Master Narratives and Their Discontents, all published by Routledge.


"You know how you’re always being challendged to specify what you’d want to take along for a stint of solitary confiment on some remote desert isle? With this dazzling volume, James Elkins effectively proposes that all you’d ever really need to bring would be your own eyes- your eyes, that is, properly tuned and vitalized. If the doors of perception were cleansed, Blake used to insist, we’d see the world as it truly is, which is to say, infinite. Leaving aside its vitalizing bounty of particular revelations, what Elkins is really offering with this marvelous book is nothing less than Murine for the mind, Windex for the soul."—Lawrence Weschler, author of Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology


"A magical mystery tour of the ordinary and arcane. Elkins goes detecting, explaining, experimentaing so that, our vision revitalized, we can finally see."—Rosamond W. Purcell, photographer of Swift as a Shadow: Extinct and Endangered Animals.

"Intriguing, informative, and revealing. A beautiful guide to the art of not just looking but also seeing."—Antonio R. Damasio, neuroscientist and author of The Feeling of What Happens

"In 32 informed yet graceful essays, Mr. Elkins, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, teaches you how to look at postage stamps, pavement, Egyptian hieroglyphs, the periodic table, grass, a twig, moths' wings, color, the inside of your eye and nothing at all, among other man-made and natural things."—The New York Times

"…Elkins proves himself an enthusiastic, fun guide. With dozens of full-color photographs, this is a great book for the coffee table."—Publishers Weekly

"...a useful book for writers, artists and teachers, as well as the rest of us to enrich our daily lives."—Marilee Reyes, Star-News

"Elkins shows us the extraordinary in the most ordinary of things."—Jerry Davich, Northwest Indiana Times

"An intriguing and beautiful project, it is wide-ranging and well-informed in the subjects it covers... this book…takes us on a fascinating exploration of the visual world- which we too easily forget extends beyond television, movies, and art museums- in all its rich diversity."—Lisa Soccio, afterimage