Sunday, February 7, 2010

Book Review: Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

Bicycle Diaries is not a book about randonneuring. Bicycle Diaries is not a book about ultra-cycling. Bicycle Diaries is not really even a book about cycling at all. Bicycle Diaries is a collection of essays by former Talking Heads front man David Byrne reflecting upon his travels around the globe and his observations of art and society in which the bicycle plays a principal role.

Byrne uses his bicycle as his primary means of transport through the streets of New York City. As a former Brooklynite myself, I instantly understand the appeal of urban cycling and miss seeing the city over the handlebars of my red 3-speed British racer. There’s nothing quite like approaching Lower Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge. It really IS the best and fastest way to get around New York and it’s great to see all the improvements made over the past ten years to make cycling a safer and more acceptable alternative to subway, bus, cab and car.

Anyone looking for an in-depth analysis of the politics of urban transportation will likely be disappointed by this book. While Byrne’s interests and political inclinations parallel the recent rise of urban cycling in this country, he does not claim to be an activist or urban planning insider. He does include some cool images of his playful bike rack designs, though. His essays on American cities are juxtaposed against essays on other cities around the world. In Copenhagen, Berlin and Amsterdam, cyclists are welcome as part of the mainstream whereas in New York and other US cities, we are only now seeing efforts to undo decisions made made by urban planners long ago in favor of cars. His cross-cultural analysis supports his claim that we have cut off possibilities for ourselves through decisions made in the service to the car. He writes:

As a cyclist or pedestrian, it makes one feel unwanted, like an interloper, and you end up sort of pissed off. Needless to say, riding on an expressway is no fun. There’s nothing romantic about it either – you’re not a cool outlaw, you’re simply somewhere you don’t belong.

The real beauty of Bryne’s rambling tales, though, may be the window they provide us into the worldview of an artist. Byrne often drags a bike along with him to explore the cities he visits in Europe, Asia, Latin America as well as the United States between performing engagements. His essays remind us that the world seen from the seat of a bicycle is different from the one we see shut off by a car windshield in so many ways. 

I enjoyed this book quite a lot. It reminds me that the world is not always as it seems. As cyclists, we have the opportunity to experience a different world; the common can be quite uncommon, whether that means the smell of a wooded grove at 2:00 am or the feeling of a gentle rain on your face at dawn. The blank stare you get when you tell someone you just finished a 24-hour ride through the mountains makes you want to utter “You just had to be there.” Byrne's essays reveal an artist-cyclist's parallel world in action. Readers interested in cycle commuting, urban planning or a behind-the-scenes view of the life of a major pop star should enjoy it. It is another reminder to stop and smell the roses.

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