Book Review: David Byrne’s “Bicycle Diaries”

Via The Daily Kos

By Susan Gardener

This point of view—faster than a walk, slower than a train, often slightly higher than a person—became my panoramic window on much of the world over the last thirty years—and it still is. It's a big window and it looks out on a mainly urban landscape. (I'm not a racer or sports cyclist.) Through this window I catch glimpses of the mind of my fellow man, as expressed in the cities he lives in. Cities, it occurred to me, are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are. A cognitive scientist need only look at what we have made—the hives we have created—to look at what we think and what we believe to be important, as well as how we structure those thoughts and beliefs. It's all there, in plain view, right out in the open; you don't need CAT scans and cultural anthropologists to who you what's going on inside the human mind; its inner workings are manifested in three dimensions, all around us. Our values and hopes are sometimes awfully embarrassingly easy to read. They're right there—in the storefronts, museums, temples, shops, and office buildings and in how these structures interrelate, or sometimes don't.

I wish there were a term halfway between the pejorative "dilettante" and the weighty "Renaissance man" to classify people like David Byrne, former Talking Heads frontman, visual artist, documentary film maker, essayist, environmentalist and ... um ... avid bicyclist. We really need a word for people's whose gifts are wide, whose touch is light, who make connections between multiple scenes and yet who don't take themselves pretentiously seriously. Byrne would be their poster boy.

I mean, how can you not admire the breadth of someone who can pen Life During Wartime, win an Academy Award for a film score, create a playful PowerPoint presentation spoofing Powerpoint itself—and present it to its creators (more on this later)—and be commissioned by the New York City Department of Transportation to design bicycle racks?

Bicycle Diaries is a leisurely, wide exploration packaged in spritely essays of what Byrne terms in that original blockquote up there "glimpses of the mind of my fellow man, as expressed in the cities he lives in." It's part travelogue, part architectural and social critique, part meditation, part simple journal. And be forewarned—it meanders, but in a good way, like a bicycle ride undertaken for the pure joy of it with no destination in mind.

What holds Bicycle Diaries together are the author's vivid profiles of cities—and the thoughts they provoke, which can be far-ranging and make sense only in following his trains of thought. These profiles of the cities he's visited over the span of an impressive 30-year-plus career read like profiles of human beings, sparkling with unique personality, vivid with quirky detail, all filtered through a lively street-level view. Because of his long international career, his visits to cities are like snapshots taken over decades, and his insights reflect on how urban areas worldwide are adjusting over the years to different economic times, experimenting with transportation options and awakening to the fact that environmental factors need to be first and foremost in future design plans.

His ability to tie in decisions about design and architecture to social priorities is amazing. Take this observation, for example: "All this talk about bike lanes, ugly buildings, and density of population isn't just about those things, it's about what kinds of people those places turn us into." Or his vision of the convergence of politics, culture and urban landscapes:

I believe that politics is, besides being pragmatic, social, and psychological, also an expression of a wider surrounding context. That includes everything that might affect what people feel and do—music, landscape, food, clothes, religion, weather. Politics is a reflection of the streets, the smells, what constitutes eroticism, and the routine of humdrum lives just as much as it is a result of backroom deals, ideologies, and acts of legislature.


Just as there are elements in our genes waiting for chemical keys to allow for expression as a chicken liver or a human heart, there might also be elements in a place that trigger expression through politics, action, and culture. Much human behavior is a manifestation of these keys being inserted and turned—keys that open genetic, geographical, and cultural doors-through which the latent tendencies pass.

Like Jane Jacobs before him (whom he references and reveres), Byrne recognizes the richness of urban living, the tolerance it can foster and the environmental value of the lower impact cities have upon the environment. He makes his points through his descriptions from Berlin to Manila, from San Francisco to his beloved hometown of New York City, from Buenos Aires to Istanbul—all cities whose layouts and architecture have helped shaped the personality of both the cities and their residents. His attention to the details of buildings, walkways, frequency of parks, bike lanes, public transport, make each urban environment come alive.

Yet in the end, it's Byrne's mixture of pragmatism and optimism that makes Bicycle Diaries more than worth the read. His recounting of how he was moved to tears watching an ant hill at work after a long time spent alone crossing the Australian outback is haunting, not unlike his artistic sensibility that allows him to tease out cultural signifiers in such mundane artifacts as ring tones on cell phones. His his limitless curiosity allows him to move repeatedly beyond stereotypes and sort through quixotic details overlooked by other observers and make this work stand out. Above all, his bedrock respect for the dignity of the human spirit and the fascination with what human beings can create, wherever it can be found, shine through every page. How can you not swoon for a man who confesses this:

I sense the world might be more dreamlike, metaphorical, and poetic than we currently believe—but just as irrational as sympathetic magic when looked at in a typically scientific way. I wouldn't be surprised if poetry—poetry in the broadest sense, in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes, and designs—is how the world works. The world isn't logical, it's a song.

Gotta love that: The world isn't logical, it's a song. Amen.

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