Book Review: Bicycle Diaries

David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries (Viking, 2009) is what happens when a cosmopolitan urbanite with a penchant for journalling pedals his bicycle around various cities of the globe for three decades. Byrne, who you may know as the former lead singer of the influential alternative band Talking Heads, is also a visual artist, writer, and cycling enthusiast/advocate. He has been riding around his city since the 1980s, and began taking a folding bicycle on tour in the 1990s. “This point of view — faster than a walk, slower than a train, often slightly higher than a person — became my panoramic window on much of the world over the last thirty years,” he writes. And while he possesses a model environmental and social conscious, Byrne admits that his primary motivation for riding a bicycle (even before it was hip) is the feelings of liberation and exhilaration it provides him. Herein lies a major strength of Byrne’s approach in this book: his bicycle diary is experiential first, and socio-political second. The book unites and encourages where it could have merely divided. Citizens who do not necessarily agree on transportation philosophies and urban development strategies can at least agree that riding a bike can be empowering and fun.

Byrne cycles through several American cities, including the musical streets of San Francisco, his childhood home of Baltimore, and his current home of New York City. He also chronicles his travels to Europe (Berlin, London), Asia (Istanbul, Manila), and a couple destinations south of the equator (Buenos Aires, Sydney). But his accounts are not so much a travelogue as they are cultural and economic reflections. Readers are treated to Byrne’s wide-ranging observations and stories, all of which gesture at something larger. These include intellectual explorations of local culture, history, politics, architecture and urban planning, to more personal stories of local music, food and acquaintances. Wisely, Byrne lets the particular concerns (or “flavour”) of each city decide how much time he spends on each topic. For instance, the twentieth century political turmoil in Manila results in a majority of that city’s chapter being about its past political dynasties and their respective mythologies. His chapter on Berlin, meanwhile, reflects on post-WWII Stasi surveillance and the city’s rocky cultural and economic transition through the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Byrne is an inductive thinker who derives his observations from concrete objects. “Economics [is] revealed in shop fronts and history in door frames,” he believes. This inductive characteristic of his thinking is responsible for the book’s readability. Those who would not read a more traditional cultural studies book will find this one engaging. However, those expecting a more confessional or personal travel diary will perhaps be disappointed with Byrne’s book. But if, like me, you enjoy pondering social trends and cultural phenomena, you will almost certainly enjoy this book.

One of his assumptions is that cities “are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are.” Later in the book, Byrne asks some questions that stem from this assumption: “What is it about certain cities and places that fosters specific attitudes? . . . To what extent does the infrastructure of cities shape the lives, work, and sensibilities of their inhabitants? . . . Do creative, social, and civic attitudes change depending on where we live? . . . How does this happen? Do they seep surreptitiously through peer pressure and casual conversations? Is it in the water, the light, the weather?” These are some of the central questions that drive his adventures through the streets and bike paths he encounters.

While obviously not a trained or academic theorist, Byrne’s cultural observations are for the most part intriguing and thoughtful. For example, he notes how the ubiquitous, steel-and-glass modernist architecture visible in so many cities– from office buildings to government offices to housing projects — is, in its own way, just as ideological as the ornate baroque buildings this style rebelled against. This is because all architectural styles have particular ideological underpinnings, and modernism’s minimalism should not be mistaken for neutrality or timelessness. “The myth of neutrality,” he writes, “is an effective blanket for a host of biases.” Byrne also offers some valuable reflections on creativity and the arts. He notes that creativity is often found in chance encounters with those outside of one’s social category. Therefore, the cities that can manage to house different people together in neighbourhoods, and encourage them to rub shoulders on the street, are most often those with a thriving artistic scene. Over the long run, segregation cannot provide the variation of experience necessary for artistic vision.

One of the nice things about the book’s layout is the inclusion of Byrne’s photography (along with a few practical stock photos when needed). These photographs help bring Byrne’s recollections to life, and aid in more clearly illustrating some of his points. It would be nice if a future edition of the book included these photographs in colour (and perhaps overhauled the rather unappealing cover).

The book is written with a balanced tone that is inviting yet composed. Byrne seems genuine, curious, even humble. He is the prototypical urban humanist: worldly, neat, and progressive. However, some of his philosophical reflections on human nature and purpose could have been edited out without losing much. He tends to be excessively pessimistic regarding our collective purpose on earth. This does not fit, in my mind, with the great emancipatory value he finds in the arts, nor with his rich appreciation for the world’s diverse cultures. Personally, I found the chapters on Istanbul and Buenos Aires most absorbing. The book takes a chapter or two to really become interesting, but once it does it holds the reader’s interest right through to the end. Not bad for a $6 book I pulled out of the Chapter bargain bin.

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