In Praise Of The Bicycle, Marc Augé (2019)

An anthropologist pedals around Paris imagining a two-wheeled future

Reaktion Books 9781789141382 95pp £7.72

Translated: Teresa Lavender Fagan
Illustrated: Philip Waechter

Marc Augé’s slim meditation exudes charm. Playfully illustrated by Philip Waechter, hard covers contain heavy bond pages. Its text combines memoir, manifesto and call to mobilise in 14,000-word dream sequence.

Augé is a heavyweight French anthropologist, who, in the late 1960s studied village communities in West Africa. He later applied his craft to dissecting Parisian life and coined the concept of ‘non places’ to describe mass transit systems, motorways and similar, within in which humans are, in Augé’s estimation, anonymous.

He loves cycling and experiences it as a means to connect with urban topography and the human organisation that has spawned our cities. He identifies pedalling with childhood re-experienced, a surrealistic form of writing, and a release from the ‘ghosts in mobile phones’.

Born in 1935, some of Augé’s references will resonate most for those of his generation, or who have immersed in cycling history. And his juxtaposition of observation with imagined futures at times feels eccentric. 

A great enthusiast for the Parisian Vélibs (hire bicycles located on city streets), Augé imagines that such schemes portend ‘an urban communism for bike riders’.  His causal evocation of post-capitalism made me yearn for an analysis based more on Marxist rigour than rhetorical whimsey. My enjoyment of this thoughtful trip around the French capital was undimmed, nonetheless.

The book was originally published in French in 2008. Welcome as a translated edition is, updating the modest sprinkling of figures would have been worthwhile.

TD 18 May 20

It joins a grown shelf of erudite reflections on cycling. The following are also worth trying.

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