Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Book Review: David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries

David Byrne's book Bicycle Diaries isn't so much a book about cycling as it is a bleeding love letter to urban planning. Byrne guides us through an array of American, European and South American cities, including, but not limited to: Detroit, New York, Berlin, London and Buenos Aires - but his stream of consciousness writing uses cycling not as a focal point, but as an unconvincing common denominator.

Like a true artist, Bryne's book is nonlinear and erratic. My favorite and most memorable contemplation deals with young people's obsession with the teenybopper (according to Byrne) outfitter, Abercrombie & Fitch. Byrne writes:

"This former bastion of WASP outdoor wear-which intentionally used to be about as sexy as the boxy Brooks Brothers look-has remade itself as a kind of homoerotic Fascist-chic outpost. Talk about a makeover! Is there a Tom of Finland lurking behind or within every button-downed square? Two male models stand at the entrance of the shop in hot pants, and the walls inside are plastered with photos and paintings (paintings!) of shirtless male models. The ploy has paid off handsomely; youths of all types fill the place daily...but what does it mean that gay kitsch sells clothes to straight youth?"

Bicycle Diaries is filled with many similar tangents, although not all address gay kitsch (unfortunately). He writes mostly about his perceptions of different cultures: their art, personalities, architecture and city centers. He spends time describing faceless characters he meets in his travels who seem to escort him to and from sexy, artsy events but then quickly disappear from the reader's view. At one point he defends the decision to perform one of his art installations in a shopping mall in Istanbul. While he is obviously a well-read intellectual, Byrne's book is more about everything than it is about cycling.

That is not to say that his book is without charm. Byrne often, if not always, takes his folding bicycle along with him when he travels. This leads to some funny mental images of David Byrne cycling around car-centric cities like Detroit or Istanbul. I believe that David Byrne rides where others don't and I respect his devotion to casual cycling as a means of transportation, which is how urban cycling was born.

What we do learn from Byrne's extensive traveling is that while, cycling remains a socio-economic identifier in many countries that have the resources to be great bike cities (Buenos Aires), it simply hasn't caught on in many non-American cities (except Berlin). The most interesting and informative part of Byrne's book is his epilogue, in which he addresses practical problems that all cyclists face, like finding a cool helmet or commuting to work and not getting too sweaty. This is the David Byrne I like and appreciate - the all around cyclist, who literally unfolds his bicycle in an Istanbul hotel and who contemplates the efficacy of New York City bike lanes. Moreover, Byrne has stepped up the plate as a cyclist/artist/designer with his specialized bike racks, which can be found in different locations around NYC:

To all of us cyclists, the idea of David Byrne being a jetsetter for riding his bicycle is irrelevant - this is something we all do, although I presume many of us haven't ridden around Istanbul. And while Byrne's book treats bicycling as a secondary sport to city-hopping, it is to his credit that Bicycle Diaries has prompted him to become more involved in New York City cycling and urban planning.