Bicycle Diaries

Bicycle Diaries

by David Byrne

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A round-the-world bicycle tour with one of the most original artists of our day. 

Urban bicycling has become more popular than ever as recession-strapped, climate-conscious city dwellers reinvent basic transportation. In this wide-ranging memoir, artist/musician and co-founder of Talking Heads David Byrne--who has relied on a bike to get around New York City since the early 1980s--relates his adventures as he pedals through and engages with some of the world's major cities. From Buenos Aires to Berlin, he meets a range of people both famous and ordinary, shares his thoughts on art, fashion, music, globalization, and the ways that many places are becoming more bike-friendly. Bicycle Diaries is an adventure on two wheels conveyed with humor, curiosity, and humanity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101464397
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/28/2010
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 902,511
File size: 10 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

A cofounder of the musical group Talking Heads, David Byrne has also released several solo albums in addition to collaborating with such noted artists as Twyla Tharp, Robert Wilson, and Brian Eno. His art includes photography and installation works and has been published in five books. He lives in New York and he recently added some new bike racks of his own design around town, thanks to the Department of Transportation.

Read an Excerpt

I’ve been riding a bicycle as my principal means of transportation in New York since the early 1980s. I tentatively first gave it a try, and it felt good even here in New York. I felt energized and liberated. I had an old three-speed leftover from my childhood in the Baltimore suburbs, and for New York City that’s pretty much all you need. My life at that time was more or less restricted to downtown Manhattan—the East Village and SoHo—and it soon became apparent to me that biking was an easy way to run errands in the daytime or efficiently hit a few clubs, art openings, or nightspots in the evening without searching for a cab or the nearest subway. I know, one doesn’t usually think of nightclubbing and bike riding as being soul mates, but there is so much to see and hear in New York, and I discovered that zipping from one place to another by bike was amazingly fast and efficient. So I stuck with it, despite the aura of uncoolness and the danger, as there weren’t many people riding in the city back then. Car drivers at that time weren’t expecting to share the road with cyclists, so they would cut you off or squeeze you into parked cars even more than they do now. As I got a little older I also may have felt that cycling was a convenient way of getting some exercise, but at first I wasn’t thinking of that. It just felt good to cruise down the dirty potholed streets. It was exhilarating.

By the late ’80s I’d discovered folding bikes, and as my work and curiosity took me to various parts of the world, I usually took one along. That same sense of liberation I experienced in New York recurred as I pedaled around many of the world’s principal cities. I felt more connected to the life on the streets than I would have inside a car or in some form of public transport: I could stop whenever I wanted to; it was often (very often) faster than a car or taxi for getting from point A to point B; and I didn’t have to follow any set route. The same exhilaration, as the air and street life whizzed by, happened again in each town. It was, for me, addictive.

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 know 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 show 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. They say, in their unique visual language, “This is what we think matters, this is how we live and how we play.” Riding a bike through all this is like navigating the collective neural pathways of some vast global mind. It really is a trip inside the collective psyche of a compacted group of people. A Fantastic Voyage, but without the cheesy special effects. One can sense the collective brain—happy, cruel, deceitful, and generous—at work and at play. Endless variations on familiar themes repeat and recur: triumphant or melancholic, hopeful or resigned, the permutations keep unfolding and multiplying.

Yes, in most of these cities I was usually just passing through. And one might say that what I could see would therefore by definition be shallow, limited, and particular. That’s true, and many of the things I’ve written about cities might be viewed as a kind of self-examination, with the city functioning as a mirror. But I also believe that a visitor staying briefly can read the details, the specifics made visible, and then the larger picture and the city’s hidden agendas emerge almost by themselves. Economics is revealed in shop fronts and history in door frames. Oddly, as the microscope moves in for a closer look, the perspective widens at the same time.

Each chapter in this book focuses on a particular city, though there are many more I could have included. Not surprisingly, different cites have their own unique faces and ways of expressing what they feel is important. Sometimes one’s questions and trains of thought almost seem predetermined by each urban landscape. So, for example, some chapters ended up focusing more on history in the urban landscape while others look at music or art—each depending on the particular city.

Naturally, some cities are more accommodating to a cyclist than others. Not just geographically or because of the climate, though that makes a difference, but because of the kinds of behavior that are encouraged and the way some cities are organized, or not organized. Surprisingly, the least accommodating are sometimes the most interesting. Rome, for example, is amazing on a bike. The car traffic in central Italian cities is notoriously snarled, so one can make good time on a bike, and, if the famous hills in that town are avoided, one can glide from one amazing vista to the next. It’s not a bike-friendly city by any means—the every-man-for-himself vibe hasn’t encouraged the creation of secure bike lanes in these big towns—but if one accepts that reality, at least temporarily, and is careful, the experience is something to be recommended.

These diaries go back at least a dozen years. Many were written during work-related visits to various towns—for a performance or an exhibit, in my case. Lots of folks have jobs that take them all over the world. I found that biking around for just a few hours a day—or even just to and from work—helps keep me sane. People can lose their bearings when they travel, unmoored from their familiar physical surroundings, and that somehow loosens some psychic connections as well. Sometimes that's a good thing—it can open the mind, offer new insights— but frequently it's also traumatic in a not-so-good way. Some people retreat into themselves or their hotel rooms if a place is unfamiliar, or lash out in an attempt to gain some control. I myself find that the physical sensation of self-powered transport coupled with the feeling of self-control endemic to this two-wheeled situation is nicely empowering and reassuring, even if temporary, and it is enough to center me for the rest of the day.

It sounds like some form of meditation, and in a way it is. Performing a familiar task, like driving a car or riding a bicycle, puts one into a zone that is not too deep or involving. The activity is repetitive, mechanical, and it distracts and occupies the conscious mind, or at least part of it, in a way that is just engaging enough but not too much—it doesn't cause you to be caught off guard. It facilitates a state of mind that allows some but not too much of the unconscious to bubble up. As someone who believes that much of the source of his work and creativity is to be gleaned from those bubbles, it's a reliable place to find that connection. In the same way that perplexing problems sometimes get resolved in one's sleep, when the conscious mind is distracted the unconscious works things out.

During the time these diaries were written I have seen some cities, like New York, become more bike-friendly in radical new ways, while in others the changes have been slow and incremental—they have yet to reach a tipping point as far as accepting cycling as a practical and valid means of transportation. Some cities have managed to find a way to make themselves more livable, and have even reaped some financial rewards as a result, while others have sunk deeper into the pits they started digging for themselves decades ago. I discuss these developments, urban planning, and policy in the New York City chapter, as well as describe my limited involvement in local politics (and entertainment) as it pertains to making my city more bike-friendly, and, I think, a more human place to live.

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Bicycle Diaries 2.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 58 reviews.
klynnj More than 1 year ago
This book challenges our preconceptions and delves into the mechantions which create or destroy successful urban communitites. It also reflects on art as accepted and sold by the establishment and questions the foundation of ingrained assumptions and prejudice.
librarianbryan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As middle of the road as this guy's music, this was really too pleasant for me to give a higher rating to. That being said, we like the same art, we like bikes. I liked it. I wish the section on Pittsburgh was longer.
dodatadic on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Food for thought. Unique perspective, excelent observations. Didn't know he was from sub-urban Baltimore. To me, he is a quintessential New Yorker - somebody who is not necesserily born in NYC, but contributes to its liveliness.
Othemts on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
David Byrne has a folding bike and takes it with him on his travels around the world. This book collects his ruminations from cycling through many great cities. Sometimes they are observations on what he sees from the saddle, but often they ponder more deeply place of the city from architecture to culture to politics. He is admittedly didactic at times, but he often makes a good point. Knowing Byrne as the singer/songwriter for Talking Heads, I found his narrative voice not at all what I expected, sometimes a little crude, sometimes a little lofty, but usually compelling. This is a good book for learning about the necessary changes that need to be made to our cities to survive an uncertain future.Favorite Passages: My generation makes fun of the suburbs and the shopping malls, the TV commercials and the sitcoms that we grew up with -- but they're part of us too. So our ironic view is leavened with something like love. Though we couldn't wait to get out of these places they are something like comfort food for us. Having come from those completely uncool places we are not and can never be urban sophisticates we read about, and neither are we rural specimens -- stoic, self-sufficient, and relaxed -- at ease and comfortable in the wild. These suburbs, where so many of us spent our formative years, still push emotional buttons for us; they're both attractive and deeply disturbing. - p. 9 These [modern] buildings represent the triumph of both the cult of capitalism and the cult of Marxist materialism. Opposing systems have paradoxically achieved more or less the same aesthetic result. Diverging paths converge. The gods of reason triumph over beauty, whimsy, and animal instincts and our innate aesthetic sense -- if one believes that people have such a thing. We associate these latter qualities with either peasants -- the unsophisticated, who don't know any better than to build crooked walls and add peculiar little decorative touches -- or royalty and the upper classes -- our despicable former rulers with their frilly palaces, whom we can now view, in this modern world, as equals, at least on some imaginary or theoretical level. - p. 79 I'm in my midfifties, so I can testify that biking as a way of getting around is not something only for the young and energetic. You don't really need the spandex, and unless you want it to be, biking is not necessarily all the strenous. It's the liberating feeling -- the physical and psychological sensation -- that is more persuasive than any practical argument. Seeing things from a point of view that is close enough to pedestrians, vendors, and storefronts combined with getting around in a way that doesn't feel completely divorced from the life that occurs on the streets is pure pleasure. Observing and engaging in a city's life -- even for a reticent and often shy person like me -- is one of life's great joys. Being a social creature -- it is part of what it means to be human. - p. 292
sumariotter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Yes, this is the David Byrne from the Talking Heads, a band I've always loved, and it was a pleasure to discover that I like the man as well. He takes a folding bicycle with him everywhere he goes around the world and he writes diary entries about his experiences, and his thoughts on cities, transportation, and art. He is a man after my own heart--he notices how the spaces we live in and the way we travel influence us socially, culturally, ecologically etc. I particularly enjoyed the beginning and the end of this book. My interest flagged at some places in the middle. But overall, reading this book was the joy of discovering a kindred spirit. You won't find out much about David Byrne or his personal life here--this is not a man with a big ego. Just a loosely organized record of his thoughts and observations.
bookczuk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A bit of background first: I was a passionate bike-commuter when I was working. I pedaled my way to work both in St Louis and in Charleston (Skipped biking to work in DC because I lived in Bethesda, worked in NW DC and was on night shift.) I've had marvelous experiences and some pretty crappy ones. My current town is only moderately bike-friendly; there are far too many fatalities on the roads here for me to feel good any more. But, in theory, I am a huge bike supporter. It just makes so much sense. David Byrne was able to do what I would love to do -- explore a lot of places (specifically cities)by bicycle. I love seeing the quirky underside of towns, noting the things not seen by tourists, and missed by car or train or bus. Byrne visited some of my favorite cities, a few that I want to go to and a few that hold no interest for me. In them all, he used keen observation to pick out some unique elements. He writes a blend of travelog, bike-wisdom and political commentary. If one element didn't interest me, another shortly came along that did. I do wish the photographs were a little sharper and better labeled. Some may have been in color originally and didn't survive the switch to black and white. Or maybe it was just a crappy camera. Either way, they were the most frustrating for me.Passing this on to a friend from Brooklyn, who is interested in what's happening to our cities. It was given to us by another friend (EN) as some "recovery reading for javaczuk after surgery.
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I was given this book by my girlfriend because of my interests in the Talking Heads and cycling. However, after reading it, I can say that I would have enjoyed this book immensely even if I did not have those interests. Being in the diary format, it does delve quite a lot into Mr. Byrne's personal insights and feelings on many things; urban life, culture, music, and of course cycling. This last topic, despite the title of the book, is surprisingly less present than one would think. Despite this, I found The Bicycle Diaries to be a very intriguing and thought-provoking read.
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I enjoyed this very much. Byrnes unique voice & honesty in his perspective is always refreshing in this world of competing cleverness & cynisism.
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BobN17 More than 1 year ago
This is not a cycling book, despite the name. It's just his observations on the places he's been. Coincidentally, he rides a little folding bike around, but that has nothing to do with what he writes. So don't expect an account of his many bike rides. If that's what you want, you'll be sorely disappointed. I was.
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