The Experience of Travel
by Tony Hiss
reviewed by Katrina Vandenberg
Knopf, 2010. $27.95, 352 pages.
Review published in the November/December 2010 issue of Orion magazine
WHEN I RETURNED to the United States after living for a year in the Netherlands, I returned to a gloriously foreign country in Lawrence, Kansas. The slant of light felt exceptionally sharp and clear; I was acutely aware of not needing to wear Gore-Tex every time I left the house. Even the breadth of the grocery store’s aisles seemed miraculous.
Tony Hiss, author of The Experience of Place, is interested in these shifts in perception we experience when we suspend our assumptions and encounter the new, a quality of attention he calls “deep travel.” In his new book In Motion: The Experience of Travel, he explores why deep travel might be useful, how people may have first gained the capacity, and how we can teach ourselves to have more deep travel moments, both far from home and close to it.
Hiss believes that our capacity for deep travel is innate, a variant of our waking consciousness. He offers techniques to summon the experience, such as the “Wonder method” (inspired by Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder) and the “Warsaw method” (asking yourself, “What would I find compelling about this moment if I were in Warsaw?”). Ultimately, Hiss envisions deep travel as a tool to help us lead richer lives and make us more flexible and ethical thinkers. If we learn to view ourselves in a more extended now, as part of a bigger community, he asks, how might that change the decisions we make about the Earth and its resources?
Accessible and entertaining, In Motion reads like a long New Yorker essay, which is no surprise: Hiss wrote for the magazine for thirty years. It’s also possible that the structure of this book—350 pages, without chapters or hardly even section breaks, as Hiss digresses on everything from New York’s Great Blackout of 2003 to “Hansel and Gretel” to migration patterns—may drive some readers nuts. The book’s wide range, combined with a lack of clear signals about how a reader should organize all this information, caused me to flip back through its pages more than once.
This meandering structure might be perfect for his subject, however. Hiss argues that travel has two points: a planned trajectory, and the unplannable encounters one has on the way, which add “a Dolby stereo soundtrack to the flattened facts (of the journey).” Learning about what deep travel is, and how we can have more deep travel moments, felt like the first point of my reading. The second point was my unexpected pleasure in roaming the author’s mind—considering early twentieth-century color photographs of Russia by Prokudin-Gorskii, or the evolution of sleep; underlining the title of a book I want to read, or writing in the margin an idea for a poem. As the book explores how to enrich our lives with wonder, it too is infused with the author’s sense of wonder.
While the subtitle of the book is The Experience of Travel, I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to feel more awake as she moves through life. As a writer, I also read In Motion as a treatise on creativity—on learning how to see things at once as magical and as they are.