3.17.2010

the little details - Bicycle Diaries

David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries

From page 261:
"On my way back home, I see a nun on Rollerblades going up the Hudson River bike path, rosary flying behind her."

What you see and encounter from the viewpoint of a bike always intrigues me. So many details you might miss whizzing by in a car, so many sounds you wouldn't hear for the drone of a motorized engine. But maybe more important are the reflections and Aha! moments you personally experience when the fresh air is streaming through your lungs, the blood pumping through every capillary and the adrenaline rushing through your nerves as you glide with exhilaration on your path.

This is what exactly struck me most when I was reading David Byrne's memoirs/travel journal, Bicycle Diaries. His publicist contacted me a few months ago and offered to send me his book in exchange for a review here on Vélo Vogue. I thought a fitting time for me to really digest his travelogues would be when I was also journeying in a foreign land, with ample time to objectively reflect on the places I saw and biked in.

David Byrne kind of rambles on about the different cities where he travels in this book. The deeper I got into Bicycle Diaries, the more I was reminded of the absurdist interview I saw years ago, where David Byrne interviewed himself under the guise of many different characters. In the interview, an old man tells him that he doesn't have a very nice voice, and inquires why he insists on singing. Byrne responds, "The better the singer's voice the harder it is to believe what they are singing."

Bicycle Diaries is clearly not the most eloquent and well-written memoir I've ever read, but at the same time, I actually felt like I was having a conversation with Byrne. His reactions to the urbanity, poverty, affluence, urban sprawl and geo-cultural traits of each place he visits reminded me of conversations I've had with my peers not only about biking and urban life, but also about the random adventures one has when traveling to foreign cities. So as I turned each page, I felt as if I was engaging in a stimulating and entertaining conversation with a cutting-edge artist of our time whom I've always admired. And not only that, his observations seemed real, not preachy or pretentious (just because he happens to be a famous person writing about the places he's seen). They are observations from a sincere person whose perception of his surroundings is heightened, from someone who pays close attention to detail and is connected to the place he finds himself in.

Byrne's train of thought, not surprisingly, in each chapter goes off on tangents that often never come full circle. I think back to many bike rides I've taken when the endorphins start flying, and visions and ideas explode into my head like fireworks. So I empathetically forgave his non-sequiturs and put myself into the frame of mind as if I was riding my bike. Reading his book is kind of like A Day in the Life of this odd celebrity, who also happens to be on our side (a bike advocate), and also happens to care deeply about our planet and the posterity of livable cities for future generations to enjoy.

I was reminded again of the infamous Byrne on Byrne interview. Another character asks Byrne when he would tour again. He responds, "When there is something new to say..." I look at Bicycle Diaries as an extension of the David Byrne oeuvre. If you like his music, if you like his art installations, if you like his big suit, if you like his blog, then certainly read the book. Here is a part of his life's work that he has dedicated to the two-wheeled experience. Byrne's bicycle advocacy throughout each chapter may be extremely subtle, at least until the very last chapter when he writes about his personal involvement in community organizing in New York City. On page 262, he writes of his motivation for getting involved in bike advocacy: "If the advocacy is going to be boring, then forget about it." I look at Byrne's book as his attempt, just like I do with my blog, to show that advocating for bike-friendly cities and a bicycle lifestyle doesn't always have to be a serious and militant activity. It can be fun and relaxing too. So when you do finally pick up Bicycle Diaries, turn each page and enjoy the ride.

I read the majority of Bicycle Diaries when I was in the Pantanal, a vast alluvial plain in southern Brazil. There is one elevated dirt road that crosses the Pantanal, and the draw to this remote region is the array of animals that you can spot from this road. My next posts will show you the little details that I noticed here from the close range of my bike seat.

I also reflected on this book a lot when I was in Salvador, a rapidly developing city in Brazil where Byrne mentions that he rented a bike for a few days (bless his heart). Today's post may be my formal review of his book, but when I write about the Pantanal and Salvador, keep in mind that I developed a keener connection to these locations because I read Bicycle Diaries.

More to come...

5 comments:

Richard said...

I'm putting it on my list!

Kristin Tieche said...

Enjoy the read!

Man said...

Regarding the book review: Great honest review.

Regarding the bigger picture:
"... advocating for bike-friendly cities and a bicycle lifestyle doesn't always have to be a serious and militant activity. It can be fun and relaxing too."

Well said! Well said indeed. I could not agree more.

You should have this as the tagline for the blog.

Kristin Tieche said...

Thanks, Man, for your nice words and advice. That's a good idea! I'm gonna run with it!

Lady Vélo said...

Nice review!

I'm still reading this book atm - I've adored TH / David Byrne for years & this book fit in quite nicely with my new found cycle-legs!