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Review: Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

David Byrne, Musician and Bike Advocate

About.com Rating 1.5 Star Rating


david byrne
I've always admired and respected David Byrne. As the co-founder of the Talking Heads, he's had an enormously influential musical career, selling about 8 bazillion records both with the Heads and in a solo career. Along with his passion for music, he is an advocate for bikes as well, for years now using his bike to get around New York City and even taking a folding bike with him on tour. He's been involved in art/bike rack projects in NYC and in advocating for more bike accomodation, going so far in fact as to organize an event featuring bikes, music, and art -- blending all kinds of bike culture in the city.

Bicycle Diaries - Misnamed?

Given all these things that I know about David Byrne, I was really looking forward to getting into Bicycle Diaries, Byrne's book released last year by Viking. Just from the title and from what I knew about Byrne and his advocacy of bikes as sane transport, I guessed it would be, well, about bikes and his experience with them. Silly me.

In Bicycle Diaries, I was disappointed to find very little content, in fact, that actually related to bicycling in a direct way. Mostly, it's a collection of musings about cities and culture around the world that Byrne happened to experience as he travelled around for his music and art. And while, yes, he did ride a bike sometimes in some of these cities, unfortunately most of the chapters are devoted to disconnected, self-indulgent ramblings of people he met and things he did while visiting these places, again most of which have little direct connection to actually riding a bike.

For instance, in Berlin, Byrne writes at length about a wacky German artist name Otto Muehl and the legacy of the East German secret police; in Istanbul the focus is on a belly dance party and the challenges a local promoter faces in pulling off a music festival. Unfortunately, this tendecy repeats itself in Buenos Aires; Manila; Sydney and London. Lots of words devoted to obscure musicians and artists Byrne meets along the way and various discussions of items of local interest and culture (and all of varying degrees of interest) but little actual talk about bikes.

Best Part is Look at American Cities

bicycle diaries book david byrne

The strongest parts of Bicycle Diaries come in his discussions of American cities, where Byrne talks bikes more than any other part of the book. He describes what he sees as he rides through places like L.A.; Baltimore; Detroit; Sweetwater, Texas; etc., but even these most interesting parts are interrupted by unrelated commentary on things like the neuroses of George Eastman, founder of Kodak; murals in a church outside of Pittsburgh; and the challenge he finds in a PowerPoint presentation he has to give to software engineers.

The most compelling reading is found specifically in the pages where Byrne discusses cycling in New York City; what changes he has seen over time and what he believes is still needed; and the various components of NYC bike culture he worked with on the bike rack art project and to make the 2007 show come together, which he kicked off with a helmet-cam mounted portrayal of what it's like to be on a bike in NYC traffic as he appeared to be riding to the show just in time to pop out on stage. Unfortunately, most of that comes at the very end of the book, and you either have to fight your way through a bunch of unrelated material, or skip large chunks of the book to get there.

Ultimately, Bicycle Diaries would be best suited if it was offered as a couple of essays that capture what I believed the book to be: commentary on cycling in different parts of the world from cyclist's point of view. The parts that hit this note ring true. Unfortunately, the book gets lost in a lot of other unrelated material, which diminish the overall experience.

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