Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Review: "Bicycle Diaries" by David Byrne

David Byrne is an avid and longtime urban cyclist, and his career as a musician and artist regularly takes him to different countries, affording him the opportunity to explore some of the world's major cities by bike. "The Bicycle Diaries" collects his thoughts as he cycles through cities as diverse as Columbus, OH; Istanbul; Buenos Aires; Manila; New York; and San Francisco, to name a handful. He takes care to describe cycling culture in each of these places, noting which cities are particularly bike-friendly (Berlin, with its separate traffic lights for cyclists) and which cities' residents regard cyclists as a baffling anomaly (Istanbul, for one).
Byrne's observations and insights into the unique pleasures and pitfalls of urban cycling in each particular city are well worth the read, as are his broader discussions of cycling's social benefits. But what really animates the book are his digressions. Each place conjures a variety of subjects for him to ruminate on: in one deindustrialized American city, he explores the post-modern landscape, where there are "simulated streets" and industrial park landscaping that "refers to" a "memory of landscape," places that are really "places" in quotation marks. Berlin evokes notions of man's domination of nature, as well as collective and individual self-denial. In Manila, Byrne thinks about control, exploitation, and disco; in London, his thoughts turn to William Burroughs' "policeman inside," who permits us to think certain thoughts and forbids us from thinking others.
Skimming the book again in order to write this review, I was struck by how deftly Byrne navigates from subject to subject, and at how casually and informally he investigates them. In addition to everything he has to say about cycling in cities, he intelligently addresses some heavy topics, like colonization, urban decay, the connection between beauty and death, the way architecture can mirror culture, the absence of meaning in life, and the relationship of artists to art, but always in a somewhat disengaged, relaxed style, and usually in just enough depth to pique the reader's interest before hopping to another engaging topic. It's a delightful stylistic device, this restlessness, because it is reminiscent of the many fleeting impressions one gets while biking. His stripped-down, conversational tone belies the gravity of some of his subject matter, and gives the book a breezy feel: he's rarely moralizing, and never establishing and defending a thesis -- just asking interesting questions (and occasionally offering tentative answers).

1 comment:

  1. A friend of mine who works for a transportation non-profit (the kind that likes bike lanes, not roads) got to see DB speak at an event here in DC. From what I heard from her, his presentation was similarly scattered (which understandably didn't play as well in that context.) Still, I was so jealous.