Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

David Byrne is a smart, funny, artistic sort of fellow whose talents, inclination and curiosity have led him all over the world. A few decades back, David discovered folding bicycles and since then he's ridden his bicycle along the side and back roads of many cities, riding, thinking, chatting, living life and seeing how it's lived in a wide range of places. His view of the world seen from a bicycle saddle gives him "glimpses into the mind of my fellow man, as expressed in the cities he lives in." Now, his meditations on people, places and the various ways we get along and get around are collected in his new book, Bicycle Diaries.

Bicycle Diaries is the best kind of art, a work that brings the reader along on the artist's journey. Bicycle Diaries is a physically beautiful book, hardcover with no dust-jacket, yellow embossed letters cheerfully identify the title and author while a black silhouette of a rider draws the reader forward. An observant reader will notice a tiny bicycle peeking out from the spine at the bottom of page 11 and on each odd page thereafter the bicycle has makes more progress. Fanning forward through the pages sets the tiny typeset bicycle free, racing across the pages in the oldest style animation, persistent vision holding tight to the bike while the pages blur past. Ever the artist, be it in music, lyric, print, or type, David remembers that a book can be more than just a file on a Kindle.

The tiny animation is just one example of the playful digressiveness of this book. While he casts a loving and critical look at the world, David is always conversational. He ponders, rants, muses and marvels. He reflects on how our cities reflect our minds. We build what we value, but our shaped world shapes those values. In an age where it seems that every celebrity has a publicist and a book that screams "look at me", David is instead riding his bike down interesting streets and pausing now and then to say "Hey, look at that!" He profiles interesting buildings, streets, people, cities and artists. He's structured the book as a series of chapters each concentrating on a city such as Berlin, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Sydney or New York, but the book is not a mere travelogue. In Manila, he uses the life story of Imelda Marcos as a springboard for contemplation of the way we each build the mythic stories of our lives. In Buenos Aires he considers geography, faith, death, music, art, unemployment, sex, the pack behavior of dogs, politics, football, gentrification, nightlife, and worker ownership. In every place he rides, he finds the unique and the common and connects the local with the global.

Bicycle Diaries is an intensely human and humane book, a book that echoes in print the sense of "My God, how did I get here?" that David expressed years ago in the Talking Heads. To an interesting person like David, all places are interesting and he consistently reminds us just how interesting humans are. We are the ones building the human world -- we don't just travel the world, we make it. David's work takes him out in the world, a world he shapes with songs and images. As he's ridden more, in more places, he's become more of a cycle activist, using his talents to shape the world to be friendlier to humans and bicycles. He's designed and installed bike racks in New York City, he thinks about helmet design and he works with transportation planners. And most importantly, he's written a wonderful book, a book that reveals the simple delight of riding a bike through an amazing world.
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