The message: Look around while in motion

In Motion: The Experience of TravelObserving our world would make ‘wasteful’ travel more meaningful.

IN MOTION: The Experience of Travel. Tony Hiss. Knopf. 337 pages. $27.95.

People perpetually complain about wasted time, whether they’re commuting on trains or stuck in traffic, doing errands or shuttling around children. But what if the problem isn’t these so-called burdensome moments but our attitude toward them? Former New Yorker staff writer Tony Hiss believes this theory, and his book calls for a new approach to everyday travel and a redesign of modern transportation systems to be more conducive to enhanced awareness experiences he coins Deep Travel.

Hiss’ description of Deep Travel — “the ability to wake up while already awake” and rest in a perpetual “now” — is resonant and recognizable. He’s describing meaningful moments during which our sense of the world shifts, awareness flows, and time slows. He presents such moments through the eyes of travel writers and includes meticulous recountings of his experiences doing normal and not-so-normal things near his home in New York City, from glimpsing a peregrine falcon on a high rise while walking home to traversing the streets during the 2003 blackout. Whatever the purpose, Hiss asserts, moving around should be “enjoyed, savored, treasured, as one of the most satisfying parts of being alive.”

The premise is intriguing and immediately connected to our lives today. But while the book covers ways one could enter the state of Deep Travel, such as Pico Iyer’s discussion of the benefits of jet lag, and Hiss’ experiential anecdotes are generally engaging and on point, as the book progresses he drifts farther afield from his well-drawn and early-stated purpose. As he daydreams and wanders a wide-ranging path of mental inquiry that includes awareness, time, planetary alignment, geologic motion and even environmentalism, he gets further from his purpose. Rich and lengthy tangents take over. At one point, he veers into a thorough investigation of evolution and the origins of human bipedalism, leaving readers to put together the pieces that comprise a dense and wandering middle.

If you can surrender to the leisurely pace and often mysterious direction of Hiss’ sweeping mental journey, the book can be deep, fascinating and weighty, as it is well grounded in serious research. But ultimately, Hiss doesn’t accomplish the goals he sets out at the start and reiterates at the finish, at least not in a focused, tightly zipped sort of way. Many whose interest lies outside the genre of the mind and human development might not have the appetite to wade through rather fragmented, informal and sometimes affected prose, to discover practical gems linked to our life and travels today.

But if we shift perspective and assume Hiss set out not to change our attitude and modes of transport but instead merely to open our minds, then perhaps he has succeeded. “[W]hen the mind is in motion in this way, the experience of travel changes,” he asserts early on, and In Motion will certainly set minds in motion, heading deeper into the roving nature of humanity. We just expected an altogether different sort of journey.

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