A non-fiction book by Travis Hugh Culley that, in the long tradition exemplified by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, intersperses the author's personal experiences with philosophical and social musings on our modern human society.
Culley is a bicycle messenger in Chicago, and The Immortal Class is his hymn to what he calls The Cult Of Human Power - the urban biking sub-culture, which includes couriers, anti-globalization campaigners, the famous 'critical mass' movement, and anyone who favours the bicycle over the motorcar as a means of personal urban transport. Drawing on his own experiences, stories he has heard and characters he has met, Culley paints a disturbing and persuasive picture of the effect that the automobile has had on city planning and legislation for decades, especially in the United States.
He started out as an artist and took a messengering job as an alternative to starving to death or moving back home with his parents, and he quickly found that bicycle messengers exist in a strange kind of double bind. Because of their speed and mobility in urban areas (for which they occasionally pay the price of injury, or even death), they are constantly employed by large corporations to ferry urgent packages or documents from place to place in the city. However, at the same time, they are treated with fear and suspicion, and occasionally outright hostility and discrimination, by the very people whose packages they carry.
Culley uses witty and personal anecdotes to prepare the reader for each larger thesis, and from this issue of discrimination against messengers, he builds an argument that the entire construction of cities is built around discrimination against modes of transport other than automobiles. One very simple way of illustrating this is by pointing out the obvious fact that bicycles are expected to obey the same 'rules of the road' as automobiles, while enjoying none of the inherent protection afforded by the car's metal shell. This is a theoretical point only until Culley begins to tell stories of cyclist he knows, or knew, who have been injured or killed by careless motorists. The most disturbing of these stories involves a road rage incident in which the cyclist was deliberately run off the road.
The book's positive, inspiring side comes directly (I feel) from Travis Culley's own personality - his descriptions of his life as a messenger, and of the feeling of brotherhood he feels with his subcultural niche, are designed to excite the senses and the imagination and to give a sense of the joy and challenge of personal propulsion. He portrays bicycle messengers as American pioneers, the 'rugged individualists' upon whose shoulders the United States, according to its own self-mythology, was built.
The parallels between this book and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance are clear, but, importantly, where Zen is rooted in the highest of high metaphysical thought, The Immortal Class remains firmly rooted in this physical world, keeping its sights firmly fixed on the great environmental enemy: the motorcar. I feel that this restriction of scope is what prevents it from being a great book, rather than simply what it is: a persuasive, moving account of the marginalization of actual, soft humanity from our increasingly hard and dangerous urban spaces.