Book Review: Bicycle Diaries

“All this talk about bike lanes, ugly buildings, and density of population isn’t just about those things, it’s about what kinds of people those places turn us into.”  - © Kelly Nelson

“All this talk about bike lanes, ugly buildings, and density of population isn’t just about those things, it’s about what kinds of people those places turn us into.” - © Kelly Nelson

David Byrne, a founder of the band Talking Heads, has been biking for transportation for decades, in New York City where he lives and while visiting foreign cities. (He brings a folding bike when he travels.) His new book Bicycle Diaries recounts his experiences bicycling in various cities: Berlin, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, London, Manila, San Francisco and Sydney. Don’t expect a bike travelogue though. The book would more accurately be titled “Diaries of an Artist Who Bikes.” It contains a wide range of musings (can dogs deceive themselves?) and wonderings (does every culture have its own palette?) as well as encounters with artists, musicians and strangers on the street. It is a thought-filled, swirling read. And if you flip the pages front to back you’ll see a tiny bicycle scoot across the bottom of the page.

The most bikey parts come in the introduction, the New York chapter and the epilogue. Byrne started biking in the early 80s when it was a geeky, uncool thing to do but he found it exhilarating. Still does. Byrne, in his fifties, clearly enjoys having a bike-seat view of street life and urban landscapes. “It’s the liberating feeling—the physical and psychological sensation—that is more persuasive than any practical argument,” he writes to explain why he rides. He does use cars on occasion but says of driving, “The romance of being ‘on the road’ is pretty heady, but a cross-country ramble is a sometime thing. It isn’t a daily commute, a way of living, or even the best way to get from point A to point B.”

Byrne has applied his artsiness to the world of biking by organizing a public forum in 2007 that featured helmet designers, lock breakers, writers and singers (detailed in the New York chapter) and by designing one-of-a-kind bike racks (shown at the end of the book).

After reading Byrne’s description of Berlin—“No cars park or drive in the bike lanes, and the cyclists don’t ride on the streets or on the sidewalks either. There are little stoplights just for the bikers, even turn signals!”—I’m itching to go there and see it for myself. And that is the gift of this book: it makes you want to go some place new, bring a bike or rent one there, ride around and take your own photos, write your own journal.

Kelly Nelson

Tempe, Arizona USA

Bicycle Diaries / David Byrne / Viking, 2009

Bicycle Diaries / David Byrne / Viking, 2009

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2 Responses

  1. David Byrne would make a fine keynote speaker at the TCFC conference next year in York, England.

    A big public event would certainly help bring the community out to learn more about the conference.

    Just a suggestion.

  2. A friend of mine attended David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries book signing in Portland, Oregon and told me that it did not go to plan.

    The agenda called for a variety of local speakers to introduce themselves and for David Byrne to do a question and answer session at the end of the event. Unfortunately, some of the locals went way over on their speaking time. David waited tactfully but by the time the local speakers stopped blathering, it was beyond the time that had been allotted for the event. So David Byrne stood up, thanked everyone for coming and walked out.

    Portland is an awesome cycling town (one of my favorites); however, if there is a Bicycle Diaries Part II, don’t be surprised if David Byrne has something to say about pretentious local bicycling enthusiasts.

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