Sunday, June 13, 2010

fully clothed and painless: David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries

As the participants of yesterday's World Naked Bike Ride Day spend today administering first aid to their chafed bits, I felt it was only fitting that I share my thoughts on a book about cycling that I finished reading recently. I received this book a few months ago from a dear friend who has a gift (or perhaps just the inclination backed by hard work) for precisely matching his gifts to the recipient. No generic gift cards from him. He has an unerring ability to find that perfect book, one that precisely suits the interests and the personality of the person who receives it, certainly, but also one that simultaneously reflects aspects of his own personality.

He's batting a thousand with Bicycle Diaries.

Bicycle Diaries is part travelogue, part essay, part philosophical musings on the nature of globalization, transportation, sustainability, city planning, architecture, music, art, and humanity. The sorts of musings, in other words, that one should not be surprised to encounter coming from the immensely talented former Talking Head, artist, and all-round awesome celebrity with brains and heart, David Byrne.

David Byrne has been riding his bike around New York city for almost thirty years. He found it to be such a convenient and sensible mode of transportation at home, that he then began taking a collapsible bicycle with him on tour around the world. In Bicycle Diaries he shares his insights into the cities that he has experienced from a bike seat.

Bicycle Diaries has a very wide focus. In each city about which he writes, Byrne critiques the transportation infrastructure for its attitude toward cycling. It should come as no particular surprise that most American cities fall far behind European and Asian counterparts in terms of accommodating the bicycle. American cities are by and large designed for the automobile. But it was somewhat surprising to learn that a large metropolis like New York is actually making great strides to embrace cycling culture and is far safer in that regard than many mid-sized American cities. Istanbul, Manila, and Buenos Aires, on the other hand, are very challenging for cyclists.

While the central theme of Bicycle Diaries is that of getting around the world's cities on two wheels, that idea is really just a jumping off point for Byrne's observations on culture and for his stories on encounters in the art and music communities that he has had in his travels. I certainly expected this book to be intelligently written, given the reputation of the author, but I admit I was surprised by the esoteric nature of the topics that Byrne touches upon. I enjoyed the book almost as much for its insight into the mind of David Byrne as I did for the highly credible job that he does in imparting fascinating aspects of the history, geography and politics of some of the world's most intriguing cities.

This book is written with a great deal of insight and ingenuity, sprinkled with large portions of humanity and humour. Because the book is comprised of relatively short chapters, further broken down into sub-sections, it is the sort of book that is perfect for reading in short snippets. Chances are you will want to put it down frequently to muse over some of the concepts and questions that are raised in the chapter you just finished anyway.

It really is no surprise that David Byrne has become an elder statesman of sorts amongst the arts, music and civic communities. His insightful and thought-provoking writing in Bicycle Diaries proves that he is more than just another incredible musician with awesome hair who is aging exceedingly gracefully. David Byrne is actually one of our generation's thinkers.

He is definitely on my fantasy dinner party list.


Dale said...

It's a gift having friends who have that talent for knowing what you need/want/will enjoy! The book sounds interesting and so were your labels. I'm not sure I believe them :-)

mister anchovy said...

sounds most interesting!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

No,no! David Byrne really is an omnivore, Dale.
Oooooh ... the clothed bit...

It really is a fascinating book, Mr Anchovy.

John Mutford said...

I just buy everyone copies of Atlas Shrugged.

I'm kidding. In my book blogging world such a statement usually leads to riots. We're a sensitive bunch.

Bicycle Diaries sounds good though.

And I will give $100 to anyone who brings me a picture of David Byrne eating a rack of ribs. (By $100, I mean to say, $0)

Barbara Bruederlin said...

This of course begs the question "who would win in a mud-wrestling match - Ayn Rand or David Byrne?". It's how we usually determine supremacy around our house, John. That, and rib eating contests.