In ordinary life, we don’t spend very long looking at things or at the natural world or at people, but writers do. It is what literature has in common with painting, drawing, photography. You could say, following John Berger, that civilians merely see, while artists look. In an essay on drawing, Berger writes that, “To draw is to look, examining the structure of experiences. A drawing of a tree shows, not a tree, but a tree being looked at. Whereas the sight of a tree is registered almost instantaneously, the examination of the sight of a tree (a tree being looked at) not only takes minutes of hours instead of a fraction of a second, it also involves, derives from, and refers back to, much previous experience of looking.” Berger is saying two things, at least. First, that just as the artist takes pains—and many hours—to examine that tree, so the person who looks hard at the drawing, or reads a description of a tree on the page, learns how to take pains, too; learns how to change seeing into looking. Second, Berger seems to argue that every great drawing of a tree has a relation to every previous great drawing of a tree, since artists learn by both looking at the world and by looking at what other artists have done with the world. Our looking is always mediated by other representations of looking.
Berger doesn’t mention literary examples. But in the novel, think of the famous tree in War and Peace, which Prince Andrei rides past first in early spring, and then, a month later, in late spring. On his second journey, Andrei doesn’t recognize the tree, because it is so changed. Before, it had been leafless and wintry. Now, it is in full bloom, surrounded by other trees similarly alive: “Juicy green leaves without branches broke through the stiff, hundred-year old bark, and it was impossible to believe that this old fellow had issued them.” Prince Andrei notices the tree in part because he too has changed: its healthy blossoming is related to his own.
James Wood, Serious Noticing