Book Review: In Motion: The Experience of Travel. By Tony Hiss (Paperback, Planners Press)
For many decades, Tony Hiss has pioneered a type of writing that focuses on experience and perception. It's not about what we do or see, Hiss has told us, it's how we do and see, and how our environment affects those functions.
In his 1991 book, "The Experience of Place," Hiss focused on why some places feel right, and others don't. He went beyond the simple rules of good design, to explore the more subjective feeling of place. It was an ambitious and groundbreaking book.
His has continued along this path in his latest book, his thirteenth, "In Motion: The Experience of Travel," which will soon be released in a new paperback edition by Planners Press of the American Planning Association, with a forward by Robert D. Yaro, president of Regional Plan Association.
In this book, Hiss explores what he calls "Deep Travel," a state of heightened awareness, often stimulated by travel, that is simultaneously calming and invigorating, where you notice everything around you, from the people to buildings to animals to street furniture. It's the opposite of our normal state of mind, where we walk or drive from home to work without really seeing things around us. In "In Motion," Hiss seeks to identify what puts us in a state of "Deep Travel."
In this quest, Hiss wanders productively. In one chapter he meanders from the main street of Middlebury, Vermont, to the middle of the Millau Bridge in France, the tallest in the world. He conveys what it is like to experience this dramatic span, designed by Norman Foster, from a distance, a thrilling thing, and up close, both as a driver and a pedestrian, which is more problematic. He notes that views of the bridge are better than views from the bridge, and ponders what could change this.
Hiss takes us not only to physical places, but into the work of other writers and how they have handled travel. He leads us into the works of the Venetian Marco Polo, who in the 13th century described his journey to China in The Travels of Marco Polo, to the American Emily Hahn, who in the 20th century described the same country in China to Me.
If there were an award for subtlety in writing, Hiss would win it. A former staff writer for the New Yorker, Hiss also was co-author of RPA's Third Regional Plan, where he brought his fine-tuned awareness to the organization's reading of the region. "In Motion" offers a valuable pause, what Hiss might call "A Long Now" that prompts us to look around, and really see.