Thursday, January 21, 2010

Belated Book Review: Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

Since this blog got off the ground later than I had intended, I have a back log of bike related things I want to blog about.  So with apologies for the delay, here is my review of Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne.

The cycling community was very excited about David Byrne’s book. The fact that Byrne (former lead singer of The Talking Heads, Artist, All-Around-Cool-New-York-Guy) has been a long time cycling advocate, along with the title of the book may lead one to believe that the book would be all about the bikes. That’s not so. It is, in fact, more of a travelogue – the world seen atop a folding bike. Byrne brings one with him everywhere he travels. The author has a unique and intelligent worldview that he brings to bear on the cities he visits. Much of the book involves his interactions with the artistic communities of the cities he visits. His observations keep the reader interested and engaged from beginning to end. Perhaps the only place he lost me a bit was in his chapter on Manila, Philippines. Byrne is currently working on a musical piece that somehow invokes the life of former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos. This being his pet project, he seems to lavish an unreasonable amount of time and attention to the kitschy culture of the country.

The first (and most interesting) chapter is devoted to American cities and includes his thoughts on Niagara Falls; Rochester, New York; Valencia, California; Baltimore (the author’s home town); Detroit; Sweetwater, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; New Orleans, and Pittsburgh. New York gets its own chapter later – this is the city the author now calls home. Los Angeles, my city, does not get a chapter. Other chapters include Berlin, Buenos Aires, Sydney, London and San Francisco. Interestingly, cycling meccas Amsterdam and Copenhagen are not mentioned. Rather the cities Byrne writes about are the strange, the unexpected, the dying. Byrne’s sharply edited volume is a true pleasure to read. Despite Byrne’s firm foothold in the world of experimental art and music – a world that can produce a lot of uninteresting navel gazing, he shows here that he is not a idiosyncratic New York art world snob, but rather a man of the world – a man who enjoys the hunt for a good taco. And we can all relate to man like that.

Byrne, posing beside one of a series of artsy bike racks he designed for New York City.

Footnote – On October 2, 2009 I was lucky to attend a talk in Los Angeles that was part of Byrne’s book tour. Speakers included Byrne (also the moderator), Jimmy Lizama (co-founder of the Bicycle Kitchen), Michelle Mowery (Senior Bicycle Coordinator, Los Angeles Department of Transportation) and Dr. Donald Shoup (Professor of Urban Planning at UCLA). Unfortunately, when my friend was on her way to pick me up, she rear-ended someone (as if to hammer home the point that driving sucks) so we missed Byrne’s talk and introduction but we saw the other speakers – it was still a great night. And I got a signed copy of the book.

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