Book Review

Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Book shines popular science light on vision

A Natural History of Seeing: The Art and Science of Vision
A Natural History of Seeing: The Art and Science of Vision
By Simon Ings

W.W. Norton & Co.: 2008

Buy it now at

This review first appeared in the January 26, 2009 issue of the North County Times.

Vision is generally regarded as the king of our five senses. Ask most people which sense they'd give up last if forced to choose, and vision is going to rank at the top for most folks (although touch may be the most important). Our eyes provide a real-time screen on the world, allowing us to navigate our way safely, to spot threats, find a mate. The vast majority of our daily life is experienced at least partly through our eyes.

English novelist Simon Ings takes a popular-science look at how we see the world in his latest book, "A Natural History of Seeing."

Ings' book is really three narratives woven together: He explores how our eyes probably evolved from primitive light-detecting cells; he explains how our modern eyes work; and he gives a history of the science of vision – showing how our current understanding of vision came to be.

It's not the most rigorously organized of books – he bounces from narrative to narrative, often in the same sentence.

But Ings is so obviously fascinated by vision that even when the text wanders (as do our eyes, constantly; it's essential to our vision), the end result is still fascinating.

Reading "A Natural History of Seeing" is like hanging out with a really brilliant friend or an extremely approachable professor. When Ings meanders off topic, whatever new tidbit he introduces is as interesting and delightful as the original point he was making.

And he never gets lost – he may get off-track from time to time, but he quickly gets back on topic, and each chapter closes quite tidily, leaving the reader with that warm, sated feeling that comes with learning useful new information.

The illustrations allow the reader to try some of the optical illusions he refers to in the text, which really helps clarify the point the fact that while our eyes capture light, it is in our brains that vision occurs.