In ‘Airplane Mode,’ Not All Travelers Head in the Same Direction

AIRPLANE MODE: An Irreverent History of Travel, by Shahnaz Habib

Like exercise, flossing and college, travel has long been held up as an incontrovertible good — an essential part of the modern human experience. Lately, though, there’s been some pushback from the smart set, if not the jet set.

The staycation, a word Merriam-Webster has traced to World War II advertising, lost any remaining stigma during pandemic lockdowns, with the air suddenly clear of traffic pollution and birdsong audible in one’s own backyard. In The New Yorker last summer, the philosopher Agnes Callard laid out a “Case Against Travel,” prompting a flurry of avid, even angry, rebuttals and calls of “clickbait” from people who enjoy going to unfamiliar places, some pounded out indignantly from the road.

And now lands “Airplane Mode,” by Shahnaz Habib, a lively and, yes, wide-ranging book that interrogates some of the pastime’s conventions and most prominent chroniclers.

Beginning with the assumption that “travel” is a pastime at all, rather than a potentially violent upheaval, or a battle with bureaucracy. “Only Americans, British, Australians and Japanese travel,” a carpet-store proprietor tells Habib when she visits Konya, Turkey, a variation of an edict she heard, with more condescension, in graduate school: “People from the third world do not travel; they immigrate.”

Habib prefers the term “third world” to its more politically correct alternatives, she explains in a passionate afterword, praising a certain “audacity of its unwieldy internal rhyme” that Steely Dan has also noticed. She is a translator who has worked for the United Nations, and the English language is a source of sensual fascination. She considers the oft-criminalized practice of “loitering,” for example, “so close to littering and its suggestion of something that shouldn’t be there and bringing also to mind the lottery and the gamble of waiting for something to happen.”

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