Bicycle Diaries is David Byrne’s–yes, Talking Heads’ David Byrne–ode to cycling (and art and politics). The book is a collection of essays that detail his journeys around the world; every time he flies abroad for an extended period of time, Byrne packs up his folding bike and takes it along with him.
Byrne has a keen eye and a gift with words. His rides through different cities around the globe have provided him with a view of the world that few get to experience, allowing him to wax poetic on everything from the interstate system to the effects of gentrification:
We travel great distances to gawk at the ruins of once-great civilizations, but where are the contemporary ruins? Where in our world are the ruins in progress? Where are the once-great cities that are now gradually being abandoned and are slowly crumbling?, leaving hints of what people from the future will dig up and find a thousand years from now? (25)
The strength of his book lies in his explorations on his bicycle. It was fun to read his about experiences in cities that aren’t bike-friendly, and fascinating to read about his experiences in cities that are. Toward the end of the book, on the section about New York City, Byrne also discusses some of the pro-bike activism he has participated in. These are the parts of the book that are thoroughly enjoyable.
As I said earlier, though, the book is a bit of a misnomer, since he also discusses art and politics at length. It is here where the Byrne veers off course. I mean, I hate Dubya as much as the next liberal, but I prefer to read a book about cycling adventures sans the off-topic digs at our former administration. Ditto on the lengthy art discussions (though some of it was extremely interesting).
Some of his commentary globalization also made me wince:
It seems unfair to expect the Chinese and the Indians to be smarter about their carbon footprint and pollution than we in the West are, but the fact is if they approach our levels of car use and fossil-fuel consumption the whole planet will become unsustainable. (202)
Sustainability is not a Third World problem, David. The problem stems solely from First World consumption, and trying to put the ball in China’s and India’s court is just plain shitty. (Though to be fairer about the context: he does also do a great deal of calling for the U.S. to get its act together.)
Criticisms aside, Byrne’s writing is witty, funny, and oftentimes beautiful. I only wish he’d kept his focus solely on cycling. He does, however, include a helpful appendix at the end of the book that’s filled with cycling tips and equipment recommendations. The flow of the essays is a little disjointed because they were written over a span of many years, but they remain fascinating nonetheless.