Today, I’m reviewing Eben Weiss’s new book, The Enlightened Cyclist. Before I begin, though, I should point out — in the interest of full disclosure and revealing biases and whatnot — that I think of Eben Weiss — aka Bike Snob NYC — as a friend. I’ve met him in person, exchanged email with him a number of times, and have gotten a lot of help from him in fundraising. Plus, I’ve made it pretty clear that I like his blog.
However, he didn’t give me a free copy of his new book; I had to buy it retail, just like everyone else. So that kind of balances things out, right?
In any event, I read Bike Snob’s book not just because I like him. I read it because he’s an important voice in the cycling community. And especially in the cycling blog community. And doubly especially in the cycling comedy blog community, in which I have a passing interest.
Anyway, I read his book, and now I’m going to review it. And I’m going to do my best to be fair.
I want to make a general observation about The Enlightened Cyclist before I dig into specifics.
This is the book that reveals that Eben Weiss isn’t just a good blogger. He’s a good writer. The thing is, those who love his blog for its style — a couple of paragraphs, a photo, a couple more paragraphs joking about the photo, another paragraph, a photo, repeated and meandering ’til he ties it together at the end of the post — might be a little surprised. Instead of reacting to cycling culture the way he normally does, Weiss has the space a book provides to more thoughtfully develop his cycling philosophy.
And that’s what this book is: a philosophy on cycling as part of life, and how cyclists should perceive the world and exist in it.
In fact, the above paragraph probably would have been a more accurate tagline than the one he actually used, though I doubt it would have sold his book as well.
Perhaps the best example of Weiss’s ability as a writer is the very first chapter in The Enlightened Cyclist: “Revelation: The Worst Day I Ever Had and Why It Gave Me Faith in Humanity.” In it, Weiss tells the story of riding his bike in NYC — trying to locate his wife — on 9/11/01:
…[I]t occurred to me as I picked my way through them that I was the only person actually headed into the city — which, as I entered it, was not thrumming as it usually was, but was instead in a paradoxical state of both lethargy and panic. The shocked denizens of rush hour walked slowly, attempting to get cell phone signals, while people in FBI windbreakers ran around like it was a movie set and jet fighters scrambled overhead. When I finally reached Tamara, maybe fifteen minutes after leaving home, she was standing next to the car, and she and a group of stunned bystanders were simply staring at the sky. When I looked up too (for the second time that day), I could see what they had been watching al this time: people leaping from the flaming buildings to their deaths. It was the first time I ever saw anybody die.
The Enlightened Cyclist is at its very best when Weiss is telling a story about something that happened to him. It’s then that he illustrates his points best, and his narrative feels the most natural.
As I read The Enlightened Cyclist, I found myself wishing Weiss would tell stories more often. Maybe that’s because of what I see as the main weakness of the book: it feels like Weiss doesn’t trust his audience. It seemed as I was reading The Enlightened Cyclist that Weiss is most interested in laying out his philosophy on cycling — and to his credit, it’s a really well-considered philosophy. But in order to cater to the audience he knows reads his blog, he then pads his thoughts with comedy that feels kind of bolted on.
I thought, several times while reading this book, “When you’re making a point, make the point. When you’re making a joke, make a joke.” Sure, it’s possible to do both successfully at the same time, but to me, it felt like Weiss was adding humor in a second draft, to something he originally wrote seriously. Sometimes the effect is that his humor sabotages his point, like when someone says, “Just kidding,” after giving an honest appraisal of whether those shorts make your butt look fat.
This Book Made Me Very Glad I Don’t Live in NYC
A lot of The Enlightened Cyclist applies to any cyclist, in any town. What surprised me, however, was that there were pretty big chunks of this book that were utterly foreign to me. I have never seen a cyclist “salmoning” — riding the wrong way in a bike lane. I’ve never seen or been party to a “shoaling” event (where cyclists come to stop at progressively forward positions) at a streetlight. The idea of “circling” was completely new.
Those may be incredibly annoying and common phenomena in NYC (and elsewhere?), but not everywhere.
As I read about how cyclists treat each other — and how they are treated by non-cyclists — in NYC, I kept thinking to myself, “I would hate living in NYC, or in any big city for that matter.” This shouldn’t be construed as a problem with The Enlightened Cyclist, by the way. In fact, it’s one of the things I liked about the book — getting a sense of how incredibly different the cycling experience can be, depending on where you live.
It did, however, make me want to get Weiss to take a little trip to Alpine, UT, where I have out-the-door access to untold miles of singletrack, and road rides that look like this:
Of course, he might find it disconcerting that there are no stores, cultural events (unless you count deer eating your flowerbed as a cultural event), or businesses (except the guy who sharpens saws out of his garage) whatsoever within walking distance of where I live.
Different strokes, etc.
It made me think, though: The Enlightened Cyclist could only be written by a big city dweller, and is written — in large part — to other big city dwellers, whether they ride a bike or not.
Yokel cyclists like myself may find themselves feeling more and more in love with where they are (thus becoming smug, one of Weiss’s most-referred-to cycling sins).
Should You Read This Book?
This book isn’t for everyone. Language in it will offend some people, the humor won’t make everyone laugh (The “Dachsund of Time” section is funny for a while, but stops being funny before the section ends), and some people — a lot of Weiss’s blog readers, I’ll guess — will be surprised that it’s not very much like his blog at all.
The Enlightened Cyclist is a short book: 217 pages, and even the pages are kind of small. I read it in its entirety over the course of two recent flights (Austin and back). So it’s not like it’s a massive investment in time to read. It’s definitely worth your time to read a a well-reasoned, surprisingly serious plea from a cyclist both to cyclists and everyone else, on why it makes sense to behave less badly toward each other.
PS: I was going to do a live Q&A with Bike Snob later this week, but a family emergency he’s had has made that impossible. Which sucks, in at least two ways.