“I include photos from three settings, because when I wrote Inside Of A Dog–and as I embark on another book now–I wrote/am writing in various places. I am a creature of habit, not just one habit (/habitation).”
This is the main reading room of Columbia’s main library, Butler. It is a fabulous, open space, with impossibly high ceilings and windows that stretch up to them. Although there are lights on, the room is bathed in natural light during the day, which I prefer. I’ve photographed it in the morning, looking relatively spare. More folks show up as the day progresses, and I always take my leave before the hour when people are sitting elbow-to-elbow. However, I don’t mind the social element: company sometimes makes working easier. And sounds of movement and humans — the wood chairs screeching against the floor; the odd computer ping or too-loud voice — tend to dissipate in the huge space. It is never too warm or too cold. Food is not allowed (although coffee is not a food, is it?). I bring a printed-out draft of a chapter and edit it longhand, adding material and consulting whatever books I’ve hefted with me. Yet another fine element of working in a public space is that others leave their books behind: I always look at the books left overnight and awaiting me when I arrive in the morning.
I do a lot of writing on the computer, this behemoth. Mirroring it, and nearly matching it in size is this magnetic board that my husband, Ammon Shea (also a writer), made for me: it is essentially a razor-sharp slice of metal secured to an old industrial fluorescent desk lamp, with its head removed. I use it to see all my work at once, in the form of file names or topic headings. It is like mental space made tangible: it is where I flirt with the overarching concepts of the book, and cluster different ideas, or see what connects and what doesn’t. My chair is a creaky old wood one, far preferable to something ergonomic. It forces me to move, to get up and walk around, to shift in my seat. Over my shoulder is an ivy-strewn wall which changes seasonally, with wind, and as the day passes. It is my clock.
We recently moved, and my home desk is covered in unpacked reams so is not yet usable as a working desk. It is an inclined desk, a bit like an architect’s desk, which just means that I use it as an ordinary desk but things are regularly rolling off of it. The angle is nice for sketching, but it is pockmarked and I don’t know why I put up with it but I love its heft and history. I include here what is behind my back when I’m at the desk: a very particular set of shelves, again made by Ammon, which houses all the little objects and tokens and bits of paper and string and ball bearings and old rulers whose company I enjoy. I’m very fond of cubbies, small drawers, library card catalogs, and the like. They save me from mere piles. As much as I am a gatherer-of-objects, there is always space under my desk at home for a dog — in particular, for Finnegan, the great warmer-of-feet and reminder of when it is time to get up and actually interact with a dog instead of merely writing about dogs.
Alexandra Horowitz teaches psychology at Barnard College, Columbia University. Before her scientific career, Horowitz worked as a lexicographer at Merrian-Webster and served on the staff of The New Yorker. She and her husband live in New York City with Finnegan, a dog of indeterminate parentage and determinate character.
FROM YOUR DESKS: Congratulations on your being a top New York Times Best Seller List list.
ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ: Thanks! I don’t identify with it at all — it is just so surreal. But I think it’s pretty neat.
Simply look at your dog as though he were an unknown, foreign animal who snuck into your house.
AH: I worked in every crevice of the day that I could. Typically I read and wrote in the great, gorgeous reading room at Butler library up here at Columbia. When other people actually used the thing, though (i.e., during the semester), I retreated to my office up at Barnard, or the corner of our apartment where my desk lived. I like getting a good amount of work under my belt before the clock strikes noon, and then anything in the afternoon and evening feels like a bonus. Often I was unable to drag myself away from a topic in the evening and would continue on into the wee hours too.
AH: Yes, I read dozens upon dozens of journal articles and books. It was a fantastically entertaining research project, actually, sending me from Pliny’s Natural History to “Nature Neuroscience” to Quine, Oliver Sacks and the “Smell Culture Reader”. And also a good amount actually on dogs, of course.
FYD: How were you able to bring the material to terms for the common dog owner or the non-scientist?
AH: I wear the hats of both scientist and dog owner, so it felt natural to take scientific material that may be answering an abstruse specialized question and make it relevant for the dog-owner side of me.
Try not to place too many human values on your dog’s behavior. Your dog likes to sniff other dogs’ rumps? Let him.
FYD: Any great supplemental material to accompany your book?
AH: Your dog’s own ordinary behavior is the supplementary material to the book. To anyone reading the book: (first, thank you!); second, put down the book and simply look at your dog as though he were an unknown, foreign animal who snuck into your house. It’s the dog’s most ordinary behavior that is the most surprising and interesting, if you can manage to look at the dog without already “knowing” about what he is doing.
AH: Dogs don’t appear to pass the “mirror mark” test designed by the primatologist Gordon Gallup to test for self-awareness. (Neither do human children, before age 18 months or 2 years.) That is, if you surreptitiously mark their head with a sticker or bit of chalk, then point them to a mirror, dogs don’t seem to use the information in the mirror to touch or examine the mark on their own head, as we would. (Dogs can use the mirrors to get information about the room — for instance, they will see you coming up behind them and turn around – but that’s not exactly proof that they see the image of the dog as themselves.)
Dogs’ visual acuity is not so terrific, so the image might be blurry.
Now, there are a couple of good explanations for why that might be. Dogs’ visual acuity is not so terrific, so the image might be blurry. Second, maybe dogs don’t care if there is a mark on their head. And, too, it might be that they don’t think of themselves as a “self” — as an ego. They might not reflect on themselves and their own behavior. But the scientific verdict is still out on this one.
FYD: Besides walking your dog and subscribing to the Dog Whisperer’s advice (I feel too many Americans put stock in his show)….what can humans do to keep animals interested, exercised and happy.
AH: I don’t put too much (or any) stock in the advice of the self-proclaimed “dog whisperer”. Me, I like to speak to the dog in a clear, normal speaking voice. No, really: it is wrong-headed to think we have to “dominate” our dogs to live with them. Please, people, stop alpha-rolling your dog and spit-whispering at them when they step out of line. This is a bizarre way to create a loving relationship with an animal who most people consider to be part of their families. And the idea that you must assert control over your dog, or he will up-end your “leadership”: it’s simply not true. Wolves in a pack don’t fight to be the alpha wolf (wolf researchers report). They are a family unit.
Just allow your dog to be a dog. Observe what he likes to do. Try not to place too many human values on your dog’s behavior. Your dog likes t to sniff other dogs’ rumps? Let him. That’s how they greet. I’m amazed to see how people get squeamish about this kind of behavior — as though it were me sniffing their butt, or vice versa. And while we’re sniffing, let your dogs sniff the whole wide world. That’s their way of seeing.
(Illustration by Ward Schumaker for the New York Times)
Read an excerpt from Alexandra’s Inside of A Dog here.