Book Review: Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne


Author: David Byrne
Title: Bicycle Diaries
Publication Info: New York : Viking, c2009.
ISBN:  9780670021147
Summary/Review:

David Byrne has a folding bike and takes it with him on his travels around the world.  This book collects his ruminations from cycling through many great cities.  Sometimes they are observations on what he sees from the saddle, but often they ponder more deeply place of the city from architecture to culture to politics.  He is admittedly didactic at times, but he often makes a good point.  Knowing Byrne as the singer/songwriter for Talking Heads, I found his narrative voice not at all what I expected, sometimes a little crude, sometimes a little lofty, but usually compelling.  This is a good book for learning about the necessary changes that need to be made to our cities to survive an uncertain future.

Politics of Happiness

Favorite Passages:

My generation makes fun of the suburbs and the shopping malls, the TV commercials and the sitcoms that we grew up with — but they’re part of us too.  So our ironic view is leavened with something like love. Though we couldn’t wait to get out of these places they are something like comfort food for us.  Having come from those completely uncool places we are not and can never be urban sophisticates we read about, and neither are we rural specimens — stoic, self-sufficient, and relaxed — at ease and comfortable in the wild.  These suburbs, where so many of us spent our formative years, still push emotional buttons for us; they’re both attractive and deeply disturbing. – p. 9

These [modern] buildings represent the triumph of both the cult of capitalism and the cult of Marxist materialism.  Opposing systems have paradoxically achieved more or less the same aesthetic result.  Diverging paths converge.  The gods of reason triumph over beauty, whimsy, and animal instincts and our innate aesthetic sense — if one believes that people have such a thing.  We associate these latter qualities with either peasants — the unsophisticated, who don’t know any better than to build crooked walls and add peculiar little decorative touches — or royalty and the upper classes — our despicable former rulers with their frilly palaces, whom we can now view, in this modern world, as equals, at least on some imaginary or theoretical level. – p. 79

I’m in my midfifties, so I can testify that biking as a way of getting around is  not something only for the young and energetic.  You don’t really need the spandex, and unless you want it to be, biking is not necessarily all the strenous.  It’s the liberating feeling — the physical and psychological sensation — that is more persuasive than any practical argument.  Seeing things from a point of view that is close enough to pedestrians, vendors, and storefronts combined with getting around in a way that doesn’t feel completely divorced from the life that occurs on the streets is pure pleasure.  Observing and engaging in a city’s life — even for a reticent and often shy person like me — is one of life’s great joys.  Being a social creature — it is part of what it means to be human. – p. 292

Recommended books: Pedal Power by J. Harry Wray and The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Rating: ***

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