The Bicycle Diaries is a book published in 2009, by musician and artist David Byrne, describing his travels around the world by bicycle. During the course of the book, he travels to five continents, participates in art, music and politics, and observes how different urban areas interface with the cultures that gave rise to them, and how bicycle transportation mirrors all these things.
Often, when I am reading a book written by either someone who is already famous, one of the first questions that comes to mind is whether this book would ever be published if the manuscript showed up, unheralded, on some harried editors' desk. Recently, I have read a book by Kurt Vonnegut and one by Don Delillo, both of which I suspect would not have been published without the author's names attached. David Byrne, who is not primarily known as a writer of text, is obviously a suspect for letting his fame get his book published. However, upon reading the book, I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the book was very well written. Byrne is an insightful, skilled, and informed writer, and while reading the book, I forgot that I was reading a book by David Byrne, rock star, and got into the mindset of reading a book by David Byrne, amateur sociologist. It was actually a bit of a surprise in places, such as when he is driving across the Australian outback, and he helps a man tow his car out of a ditch, I wonder if the man was ever aware of who David Byrne was. Also, I felt sympathy for David Byrne when he is dealing with a hipster who wants to know what he has done lately---this should be a message to us all, because if David Byrne has to deal with derisive hipsters, there is no escape for any of us. The major factor that Byrne's career has on the book is that he is able to meet the intellectual and artistic elite in many different global cities.
Other than writing a very competent, intellectual book, I can't make the case that Byrne has written an earth-shaking one. He does seem to have an instinct for describing the interplay of landscape, culture and society, and his descriptions are very lyrical---in fact, he seems to be quite good at capturing an obsession of mine, how the physical details of a location can resonate deeply with how its culture develops. But while he does capture this well, he does not offer any groundbreaking theories about the root natures of societies. I suppose it would be asking a lot for him to do so: no matter how well educated, we don't usually expect our pop stars to transform sociology. Also, much of his political and social discourse sticks to the script of the first decade of this century, with some typical barbs thrown at US foreign policy, automobile dependency, consumer culture, and Paris Hilton, who won't get out of the way when he is bicycling around Manhattan. So, while David Byrne is on to something in his descriptions of the way that bicycles (and, by extension, DIY culture) are transforming global culture, he is also not proposing anything that is too extraordinary.