How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency

Who we are is not just how we are seen, but how we are unseen.

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Novel: How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency by Akiko Busch | Goodreads
Release Date: February 12, 2019
Publisher: Penguin Press
Format: eBook
Source: Library

It is time to reevaluate the merits of the inconspicuous life, to search out some antidote to continuous exposure, and to reconsider the value of going unseen, undetected, or overlooked in this new world. Might invisibility be regarded not simply as refuge, but as a condition with its own meaning and power? The impulse to escape notice is not about complacent isolation or senseless conformity, but about maintaining identity, autonomy, and voice.

In our networked and image-saturated lives, the notion of disappearing has never been more alluring. Today, we are relentlessly encouraged, even conditioned, to reveal, share, and promote ourselves. The pressure to be public comes not just from our peers, but from vast and pervasive technology companies that want to profit from patterns in our behavior. A lifelong student and observer of the natural world, Busch sets out to explore her own uneasiness with this arrangement, and what she senses is a widespread desire for a less scrutinized way of life--for invisibility. Writing in rich painterly detail about her own life, her family, and some of the world's most exotic and remote places, she savors the pleasures of being unseen. Discovering and dramatizing a wonderful range of ways of disappearing, from virtual reality goggles that trick the wearer into believing her body has disappeared to the way Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway finds a sense of affiliation with the world around her as she ages, Busch deliberates on subjects new and old with equal sensitivity and incisiveness.

How to Disappear is a unique and exhilarating accomplishment, overturning the dangerous modern assumption that somehow fame and visibility equate to success and happiness. Busch presents a field guide to invisibility, reacquainting us with the merits of remaining inconspicuous, and finding genuine alternatives to a life of perpetual exposure. Accessing timeless truths in order to speak to our most urgent contemporary problems, she inspires us to develop a deeper appreciation for personal privacy in a vast and intrusive world.


It feels ironic to be writing and publicizing a post on invisibility when the act of publishing is, by definition, transparent. While I’m grateful to be back on campus again this fall, it’s definitely a small school and small community in which invisibility is mostly impossible. Anonymity is relatively difficult (and undesirable, because you don’t get the same comfort of being around a cluster of strangers.) But sometimes you just need to ghost. I used to study in coffeeshops because I’m most focused when I’m around people, but not people I know. That state is pretty much impossible here, when you know almost everyone who walks into where you are — or are connected to them in some way. (Complement that thought with a fascinating read on social networks.)

My relationship with invisibility, especially in the age of social media when a handful of people know me as the girl from Instagram, is a complicated one. On one hand, I’m shy and introverted, especially at school; on the other, I have specific tastes and deep interests, which manifest in highly visible ways.

My summer of being invisible was such a luxury — something I relished and appreciated. It feels less doable here. I would go offline in a heartbeat again, but here it’s more of an escape than a hindrance.

In the winter, it was refreshing on a few occasions to go out to dinner alone, or to disappear into the woods for an afternoon instead of being on campus in the same apartments, spilling over with all the people you spend all your time with (and love, regardless.)

As I’ve mentioned, I have a few monthly reads queued up as reminders of some values that I cherished over the summer: digital minimalism, humility, appreciating place, and prioritizing character. Somehow, this trajectory emerged as a cobbled-together theme.

I wasn’t sure what function How to Disappear would serve — a how-to guide, full of the practical, or a philosophy. It ended up being a great look at how we define our identities, and how visibility interacts with that process.


How to Disappear starts out with personal reflection on being in nature, an immediate first person narrative. There’s lush description of color and trees — a quality always guaranteed to draw me in. The detail is expansive, and a little much at times, but underscores the emphasis on how much more you notice when you’re attuned to silence. (There was an excellent Brain Pickings quote in a post the other day, regarding that.)

“Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.” Gordon Hempton.

How to Disappear then takes the idea of invisibility literally, going into a discussion of how our vision affects our experience. As it states, humans have “diverse ways of being seen and unseen.” It casually references discussions of narcissism, improved technology, marginalized groups going unseen, flow states — all topics that beautifully illustrate our complicated culture. Invisibility can be a privilege too. Like, I’m not sure I would have had the same response to this book had I read this last winter.

A new vocabulary has emerged for this visibility. The word optics now has less to do with the science of light and more with how visual impressions of events and issues may be more important than the events and issues themselves.

I want to go in a thousand different directions with discussing this book and the various topics that arise within it. Like, one idea I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is that of a model of something, a representation. Or like The Memory Illusion (one of my favorite, most disturbing books of the summer) discussed, that our representations of ourselves on social media become versions of ourselves equally as valid as those we engage with in person. Or I’ve always thought that sometimes I love photos of certain places more than the places themselves. That doesn’t often happen, because I love being outside too much, but sometimes a stunning photo of a natural scene takes my breath away in a way that’s difficult to replicate. Visual impressions as more important.

When identity is derived from projecting an image in the public realm, something is lost, some core of identity diluted, some sense of authority or interiority sacrificed. It is time to question the false equivalency between not being seen and hiding.

I’m astonished by the ability of How to Disappear to rope in all these different topics and effortlessly transition between them; it’s elegant, in a word. And it nails the balance between being technical and investigative in certain areas while still offering personal observations and reflections. It roots a lot of it in empathy and smallness of self as conducive to experiences of awe. And the scope of what it talks about is even more impressive because it’s a relatively short volume.

The unspoken has an accuracy of its own…when I was growing up, he told me that the human mind was designed to forget, designed to filter information and select the things that mattered, and that it sometimes succeeded at this, but not always.

It’s one of those books that feels like it has the whole world in it.

It talked about other bits of visibility and invisibility that so poignantly illustrated ways the natural world grapples with that balance. For example, mimicry in nature. Extending that discussion to mimicry and camouflage in humans, ways we conceal ourselves in society.

In some ways, camouflage is more frustrating to me than invisibility. Blending together. Apathy. (My favorite people are intentional ones.) I dislike the feeling of being interchangeable, although I do relish being unseen. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one, and one that How to Disappear articulated so much better than I ever could. I got really into the idea of essentialism this summer, which, according to Google is,

a belief that things have a set of characteristics which make them what they are, and that the task of science and philosophy is their discovery and expression; the doctrine that essence is prior to existence.

Essentialism meshes well with the specificity of what I love, and alleviates the nerves we all seem to get when we worry that others will forget about us when we’re not around.

This book just understood all of it, and gave me so much to think about. In certain ways, it’s so relatable — the type of read I want to shove into all my friends’ arms in the hopes that they connect with some of the transitory coming-of-age type questions. In other ways, it’s just so sophisticated and thoughtful in a way that’s so admirable, that makes me so jealous that Busch was able to word all of it so beautifully. It’s a meaningful read, and concise.

Facial recognition systems, retinal scanning, and biometric tools that can read everything from voice and heart rate to hormone levels and brain waves have given us nearly infinite ways in which to know ourselves. Now if there were only as many ways to forget ourselves.

I appreciated the musings on identity, because that’s something I’ve had a lot of questions about lately. A lot of philosophy gets too dense about it, and to a certain extent, overthinking your identity is enormously unhelpful. What keeps you the same person? What do you love about the people you love? How visible are we to others? Which “version” of yourself are you at a given time, and which ones are true — or most important?

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I want to talk with someone who reads this about the instability of the human character — the studies that show how little of ourselves remains the same over the years — or what remains the same — and how hard that is to pin down. That the only constant is choosing to see yourself as the same person.

The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting, and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been.

Contemporary identity politics ask for a deep appraisal of what makes us who we are. We all want to be recognized and identified precisely and accurately. We want the images we have of ourselves to be true.


Descriptions of the calm of being underwater — a concept first illuminated to me in reading The Blue Mind, a recommendation from a friend, but supported by everything else I’ve read.

Gorgeous imagery describing animals —How to Disappear had a sublime way of reminding us of the big picture, especially in regards to nature. There were so many descriptions of sinuous beings interacting with their surroundings, which Busch tied effortlessly to some beautiful reflection on some esoteric topic relating to visibility.

SO many lines I wanted to underline — the problem with writing this review is that there are so many tangents I want to go on, so many lines I want to include. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that if I included everything that I wanted to, the review would be the entire book.

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In essence, How to Disappear is a marvel. It’s smart and spot-on, with poetry and gravitas. I keep wanting to use the word “gorgeous,” which it is, but it gets repetitive. My head is spinning. Read it, so I have someone to talk to about it! It will definitely reappear on the blog, as I continue to mull over its importance and refine how to actually talk about it. It’s on the favorites list for sure.