Monday, October 12, 2009

All hail the bicycle- a brief review of David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries

photo from StreetFilms.org site

In the September 24 issue of the Seattle Times, Andrew Matson reviews David Byrne's new book, Bicycle Diaries, by saying, "it's not really about cycling". Obviously, Matson is not a cyclist or somehow misses out on the fact that the ruminations by Byrne while in different cities around the world are coming from him while perched atop his bicycle. No, it's not about cycling and aerobic threshold or lactic acid or gear ratios or that other technical regurgitation that you can get by reading Bicycling or a cycling training book. But it is about the very heart of cycling and the special point-of-view that it affords as you roll, human-powered, through a town, taking in details that would otherwise be missed from a car or train.

David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries is exactly what the title implies: if only your bicycle could write and give the perspective of a slow-moving mode of transportation ("faster than a walk, slower than a train"). He compares riding through a city with all of its offices, shops, storefronts and people to "navigating the collective neural pathways of some vast global mind". Everything about that area can be gleaned from a bicycle, as you observe situations as they happen and can interact, instead of just observe, like you would from a car.

The cities he writes about (and he does mention Seattle, saying many areas are very rideable) are those that he has visited for a performance, stating that cycling helps him stay sane when he has lost his bearings from plane travel and multiple time zone crossings. It is a compass of sorts that steers him in the right direction, his legs feeling a familiar movement in the spinning of the pedals and his brain following along, freeing his unconscious mind to think and to catch up to the present.

For parts of the book, I have to agree with Matson's review in that it isn't about cycling because it becomes much larger than that, as Byrne delves into the history and development of the cities he rides through. Cultural, lingual, socio-economic, all the components that make cities either into livable, dynamic areas or into wastelands of shopping malls and parking lots. But it is always the bicycle that he comes back to, as his source of grounding and finding of place.

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