Title: The Bicycle Reader, Issue 1 (Summer 2012)
Author: Tim Dawson and Jack Thurston (Editors)
Publisher: Jack Thurston
What it is: A collection of cycling essays ancient and modern, celebrating different aspects of cycling.
Strengths: Makes for an engaging read and it will be interesting to see where it goes in the future, whether it will stick to its cyclo-tourist roots and what themes future issues will draw upon
Weaknesses: As an electronic publication its presentation lacks ambition (a criticism true of many eBooks)
A slightly different angle for the Café Bookshelf this time round. The difference between books and magazines is increasingly being blurred. Take a magazine like Rouleur and it's priced - and almost reads - like a book. Take a book like Tyler Hamilton's confessional and its primary purpose seems to be news. As we move deeper into the world of electronic books the gap between the two will diminish further: magazine's don't have to stop at page 94 and books don't have to have 300 pages.
The Bicycle Reader is either a small electronic book (circa 20,000 words) or an electronic magazine which the publishers - Jack Thurston of The Bike Show and Tim Dawson of The Sunday Times - hope to produce a couple of times a year. The easiest way to tell you about it is to show, so let's get on with this by taking this from the Reader's intro/editorial:
"Two thoughts inspired us to start this collection. The first is that there is a great deal of brilliant article and essay-length writing about cycling that remains inaccessible to most readers. Some of it languishes out of print. Other pieces, such as Martin Ryle's Vélorutionary?, included in this issue, appeared in a journal (Radical Philosophy) that is read by only a tiny minority of cyclists.
"The second is that Kindles and other eBook readers are the natural companion of cyclists. They are light enough to fit unobtrusively in the saddle bag and have a battery life capable of providing reading material on even the most sustained odyssey."
The Bicycle Reader opens and closes with two takes on hills. Up sees Jack Thurston confronting the dread of hills:
"Climbing inverts our relationship with the bicycle. On the flat or going downhill the bicycle is a magic carpet, a miracle machine that multiplies a modest effort into thrilling, near effortless speed. We command the bicycle to convey us and it obeys. On a climb, the tables are turned. It is the bicycle that makes demands of the rider: keep the wheels turning; stay in the saddle; don't shift down. Suddenly the miracle machine is a burden: a deadweight contraption to be dragged along, mocking human weakness."
At the other end of the Reader Tim Dawson's Down sings the praises of descending:
"That point where your legs stop pushing and your momentum rises unaided, is the moment when riding a bike seems like the best fun it is possible to imagine. And no matter how many decades you spend with your legs astride a cross-bar, the joy of wheeling down a hill, wind in your face, and hands off the brakes for as long as you dare, is undiminished."
In between these two pieces we have a mix of articles ancient and modern, whimsical and political. As age goes before beauty, let's look at the ancient first. Most all of us know at least some of the quotations attributed to Mark Twain about the bicycle. But how many of us have ever gone back to their source? Dawson and Thurston offer a chance to do just this, serving up Twain's 1884 essay Taming The Bicycle, from which most of his bike quotes have been culled.
In this Twain buys a penny-farthing (a fifty-inch high-wheeler) and - bikes being knew and original in those days - gets with his machine the services of an expert to teach him how to ride:
"[The Expert] said that the dismounting was perhaps the hardest thing to learn, and so we would leave that to the last. But he was in error there. He found, to his surprise and joy, that all that he needed to do was to get me on to the machine and stand out of the way; I could get off, myself. Although I was wholly inexperienced, I dismounted in the best time on record. He was on that side, shoving up the machine; we all came down with a crash, he at the bottom, I next, and the machine on top."
Much of Twain's gentle whimsy is taken up with falling off and some of it can still raise a smile:
"We got up a handsome speed, and presently traversed a brick, and I went out over the top of the tiller and landed, head down, on the instructor's back, and saw the machine fluttering in the air between me and the sun. It was well it came down on us, for that broke the fall, and it was not injured."
Another trip into the vaults finds My Bicycle And I, from 1904, in which Violet Paget (better known for the supernatural fiction and writings on aesthetics she published under the name Vernon Lee) sings the praises of the less than humble bicycle:
"'Tis conceited, perhaps, to imagine myself an item in the musings of my silent companion, though I would fain be a pleasant one. But this much is certain, that, among general praising of life and of things, my own thoughts fell to framing the praises of bicycles. They were deeply felt, and as such not without appearance of paradox. What an excellent thing, I reflected, it is that a bicycle is satisfied to be quiet, and is not in the way when one is off it!"
The oldest entry from the vaults is Cyclomania - dating back as far as 1879 - in which two pseudonymous (yes, even before the interweb people hid their identities, go figure) members of the London Bicycle Club trade views on the rising mania for two wheels. ‘Rusticus' claims that there is
"an objectionable class of bicyclists who [...] try to force upon one their own opinion, that bicycling is the finest of all sports. They devote all their spare time and thought to it, and can talk of nothing else. It is a good thing for a man to have a hobby, but let him remember that his hobby may not be his neighbour's, and when he indulges in incessant talk on any subject to one whose interest lies in a totally different direction, he is simply an insufferable bore."
‘Goethe' (not the real one, just a pseud) responds, basically accepts the criticism but then tries to argue that cycling has increased the range of his conversation (he is mechanically literate, because of his bike; he knows more geography, because of his bike; etc) but all his defences do seem to have the bike at the centre of them this suggesting that ‘Rusticus' might actually have a point and cyclists really can be (and always have been) crashing bores. You could imagine a similar exchange of views happening today. Right down to the pseudonyms.
A more recent piece from the vaults comes from 1985 and Albert Winstanley's To Ribblesdale - By The Back Way, a piece of cyclo-tourism that pulls in this history of the area around Ribblesdale. Of Winstanley The Bicycle Reader's editors say:
"Albert Winstanley (1917 - 2012) evoked his lifelong love of touring on his bicycle in a series of articles that stand comparison with the very best writing about the outdoors, particularly around his native Bolton, Lancashire. Collections of his works appeared in 1985 (The Golden Wheels of Albert Winstanley) and 1991 (Golden Days Awheel). In these he captured a sense of wonder and delight at discovering the world on two wheels that won him many fans."
In a contemporary article Paul Lamarra continues Winstanley's theme, this time shifting the focus north, into central Scotland, and a piece - Inhabited Solitude - about the Lowther hills:
"On the climb from Abington first to Leadhills (1,295 ft) and then to Wanlockhead (1,531ft) the sense of claustrophobia grows as the hills knit tightly to the road. For several centuries the journey into the hills was considered the ultimate walk of shame. The perceived godlessness made the Lowthers the perfect place to dump the bodies of suicides along with the cart and the old horse that carried them there. In later years it was destitute families seeking work in the lead mines and in 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie and the retreating Jacobite Army crossed the Enterkin pass rather than encounter the duke of Cumberland waiting at Beattock."
The remaining three modern pieces cover different aspects of contemporary cycling culture. In How Losing My Car Saved My Life Russ Roca serves up an origin story as to how he became a cyclist. In Sometimes a Bike is Just a Bike Alex Baca addresses the symbolism and politics of riding a bike in Washington DC:
"The political significance of bikes can't be fully understood without a nod to their supposed opposite: cars. Anyone with access to a Bruce Springsteen album knows there are deep veins of American culture where four wheels signify freedom, adulthood, and maybe even America itself. Those who shun automobiles, by extension, shun all of those things. Like grown-ups playing kickball or attending Twitter-fed snowball fights, such a rejection of traditional adulthood seems like the realm of the privileged."
And in Vélorutionary Martin Ryle celebrates counter-cultural bicycle activism, looking at cycling and identity politics (specifically ‘motorists' versus ‘cyclists') and the (political) role cycling is playing in London today. Ryle's is probably the most interesting and most challenging (and possibly even the most batty) piece in The Bicycle Reader. Consider this view expressed of a certain subset of cyclists:
"the putative need to close ranks against a hostile majority has not stopped tensions developing inside the subculture(s) of the bicycle. Robert Penn's It's All About the Bikee stands out, among the recent bike books I have been reading, for its lightly worn technical literacy and writerly fluency. But Penn's quest for perfect mechanical elegance, and his taste for speed, daring and endurance, tend to place him in the company of those cycling enthusiasts for whom riding signifies not a trip to market or a gentle spin, but the opportunity for technophiliac consumption and extreme bodily feats, such as solo circumnavigation of the globe or a race down a 14 per cent gradient on the side of a rocky mountain: ‘If you see somebody down on the course and bleeding, stop and give help - unless you're on a real good run.' That stress on combativeness and toughness was found in bicycle-messenger circles, and critics have pointed to its influence in the sometimes confrontational tactics of Critical Mass and other contemporary bike-activist campaigns, especially in the USA ([Zack] Furness [in One Less Car] offers a full and nuanced account of this question).
"A dispiritingly ‘hard' ethos of competition as much as conviviality, and speed rather than ambling, informs a surprising number of the mostly American contributions to Cycling: Philosophy for Everyone; it is also present in Paul Fournel's Need for the Bike, many of whose sketches celebrate the pains and rewards of close-to-the-limit physical exertion, in a virtually all-male French subculture whose unquestioned heroes are the coureurs of the gruelling long-distance stage-races. Fournel is associated with Oulipo, the French avant-garde writers' collective whose best-known member was Georges Perec. Reading Need for the Bike, I thought of Perec's W, in which obsessional and ruthless athletic competition is the basis of a fascistic social order; and then I thought of the Olympic Velodrome in London. Here is the bike as fetishised speed-machine, not the antithesis but the very sign of turbo-culture's conquest of mind and body: flesh is imagined as steel, rather than vice versa. For every potential cyclist who might be encouraged onto the roads by such images, a dozen must be put off."
(I may come back to Ryle at some point in the future, when I finally get to saying something of One Less Car, which has been sitting on my bookshelf for some considerable time now).
* * * * *
That, then, is the show. Time for the tell. The Bicycle Reader - certainly in this inaugural issue - is primarily targeted at cyclo-tourists, leisure riders not driven by dreams of Kübler and Koblet and Coppi and Bobet etc. It is one of those rare safe-havens where the Tour de France is not omnipresent. Across the ten articles - which at first glance may seem to be an eclectic mix - there is a sense of continuity. The mix of ancient and modern helps demonstrate that some of the issues of today were also the issues of the day way back when. On one level at least The Bicycle Reader might be compared to Granta, the magazine-cum-book that comes out periodically, each issue taking a theme and offering a variety of takes on it. The Bicycle Reader's thematic unity is not as clear or as well defined as in Granta but it does seem to be there nonetheless.
As an electronic publication, I found that - like most electronic books - The Bicycle Reader lacks any ambition. The page layout is still a slave to print conventions (in which white space is at a premium and so paragraphs must follow tight on one and other). There are two ways electronic books can succeed: in the first, they simply replace the print format and people shift to them simply because an e-reader is a library in your pocket; or publishers actually start producing electronic books that are worth celebrating in their own right. Right now, everyone seems happy to stop at convenience and ignore presentation.
Overall, The Bicycle Reader makes for an engaging read and it will be interesting to see where it goes in the future, whether it will stick to its cyclo-tourist roots and what themes future issues will draw upon.