By John Freeman
The times they are a-changing back, or so it would seem. We've traded instant Sanka for slow-drip, factory-farmed for free-range, and all over the world, city planners are starting to unbuild the systems that made it so hard for anyone but automobiles to navigate urban streets.
Perhaps this is not a surprise: Fossil fuels were always going to run out. What is a surprise, however, is that the man pedaling this issue to the forefront is former lead singer of the Talking Heads, David Byrne.
His activism has already borne fruit, especially in New York City. In the past few years, Gotham has opened more bike lanes and a path along the Hudson River, and begun greening its overlarge boulevards. Byrne has played not a small role in many of these changes.
The musician has also been living the practice. Whenever Byrne travels out of town, he brings a fold-up bike and goes for a ride. “Bicycle Diaries” collects the journals and diaries and assorted musings culled from this collection of jaunts.
It's a charming, companionable book that moves at the speed of a wandering bicyclist, reserving for itself the right to dart down narrow lanes, digress, pause, pick up again and move along in the shadow of a larger observation.
Chapters are organized by cities. So London, New York and Detroit serve as leaping-off points for a variety of city-specific thought bubbles. At certain points, the city becomes invisible as Byrne enters his own mental landscape.
This means that if you are reading “Bicycle Diaries” as a travelogue or for the real-world scenery, you will occasionally feel a bit frustrated. For instance, Byrne's chapter on London doesn't evoke the city particularly well, but it does chart a fascinating meditation upon cities and the social convention they can instill in residents.
Manila, Sydney and Istanbul get their treatment. It's a scattershot collection of cities and rides, and Byrne approaches each one with a refreshing lack of pomp or hoohah. Cities, after-all, can inspire their own groupies, which in turn makes it difficult to clearly observe them.
Byrne, however, is as clear-eyed as they come. Readers of McSweeney's and other journals will know the hydraulic-limbed Byrne is a plain but keen stylist. His sentences are at home in their own skin, move easily, and engage without wheedling their charm.
This casual familiarity is the key to good travel writing, and the most difficult thing to fake. Byrne doesn't need to. As he pedals and meanders, his eyes glancing over Baltimore and elsewhere, one feels as if his eyes become our own.
And here is why Byrne is such a successful advocate for his two-wheeled ways. He doesn't harangue, he barely blames. He simply demonstrates that life is a little more pleasant, a little easier to observe, from a more slowly moving seat.
Here's to hoping his kindly manifesto becomes the “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” of a new generation.