Travel literature review: Bicycle Diaries

Bicycle DiariesBicycle Diaries by David Byrne

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3.5 star

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Louisa Syme

Louisa Syme is a writer, editor and travel enthusiast based in Melbourne, Australia. She currently works as an editor (and armchair traveller) at Lonely Planet.

David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries may not spring to mind as obvious travel literature, but delve beneath its unassuming (though attractive) cloth cover, and you’ll hear a voice — as unique and idiosyncratic in printed form as it is in song — that is a worthy travel companion.

This is a curious book and I found myself wondering as I read just how big the secondary market could be for a title like this (Talking Heads and Byrne fans are the obvious primary market – presumably that coterie is sufficiently big to guarantee a risk-free print run for the publisher). But it would be shame for the book to have no wider circulation than that – Bicycle Diaries reveals Byrne to be an erudite thinker and commentator on contemporary urban life in many of the great cities of the world.

So, if you happen to be visiting Berlin, Istanbul, Manila, Sydney or any of the other cities covered by Bicycle Diaries, and you’re the kind of traveller who likes to immerse yourself in literature about your destination, consult David Byrne along with your Lonely Planet.

The ‘connecting thread’ or guiding principle of the essays collected in this book is the perspective Byrne gains by commuting by bicycle through the cities. Byrne reveals that in New York City (where he resides) he has been using a bicycle as his primary means of transport since the early 1980s. So committed has he become to bike riding that he now travels everywhere with a folding bicycle that packs up in one of his suitcases. The appeal is quickly apparent to the reader. The bike offers freedom from taxi fares and scarce cabs, freedom from public-transport timetables, and from choked freeways.

The bike also gets Byrne off the beaten path and gives him (and us) access to aspects of these cities often not seen by travellers. Of course, it is also Byrne’s contacts and his experiences that allow us a glimpse into the fascinating subcultures of these cities. As he travels, Byrne engages in a freewheeling discussion of art, music, technology, urban planning, politics, public figures and more. His text is accompanied by black and white photos (many taken by him) and is given an extra little bit of quirky life by the thoughtful design of the book. (Included are Byrne’s sketches of ideas for bicycle racks that double as public art, and a tiny bicycle that is drawn onto the bottom of each right-hand page. Flick quickly from front to back and it becomes a little animated machine that travels back and forth.)

For the most part, I found the essays in this book entirely engaging: witty, wry, surprisingly humble, and thought-provoking without being didactic. My one quibble with Bicycle Diaries was that the occasional political commentary felt a little pedestrian. More incisive analysis is available elsewhere. However, you wouldn’t necessarily expect it here anyway: this book doesn’t intend to be life changing, though in its own esoteric and rambling way it is a bit of a manifesto for change, and at the very least it will have you hankering to hop on your bike.

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