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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

May 23, 2013

Book Review: In the City of Bikes

In the City of Bikes - Pete Jordan

If you've followed Pax Plena for any length of time, you probably know that I harbor a long-suffering interest in cycling. In good faith, I can't call myself an avid cyclist having ridden all of 21 miles since I picked up a road bike here in New Zealand. But it is fair to say that I'm a cycling enthusiast. Naturally, when I received word about Pete Jordan's somewhat autobiographical history of cycling in Amsterdam, well, it didn't take long to catch my attention and post a review, once the book had traversed the Pacific.

I usually don't review works of non-fiction, but Jordan's book In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist (Publisher: Harper Perennial; On Sale: April 16, 2013; Cost: $15.99), was a pleasant exception to the stereotype of the somber historical tome. Jordan ably makes the history of cycling in Amsterdam an entertaining read. As a survivor of high school AP European History, lo, so many years ago, I can personally attest to the fact that making history 'fun' is not an easy task. I'm honestly not really sure why this is the case. In most situations, history/reality are more entertaining than even the best of fiction, as recent debacles involving the Obama Administration indicate.

Even so, Jordan opens the book with a bit of autobiography explaining his love of all things bike and his incipient, young hope of making American cities more cycling friendly. It's all quaint really. Like most urban planning majors, Jordan was without a permanent place of employ upon graduation. And, having recently gotten married, it apparently seemed a swell adventure to fold up shop, under the thin auspices of a university study abroad program, and move to Amsterdam, Cycling Mecca of the World.

Once there, however, Jordan tacitly adopts a mistress as he falls head-over-heels in love with the Venice of the North. The rest of the book follows suit accordingly, mixing an abiding love for Amsterdam with the honestly fascinating history of the city's own love affair with cycling. I realize, having described the work so far, that it would be easy to dismiss Mr. Jordan as an overly libidinous Bill Bryson. This is my fault, not Pete Jordan's. His history of cycling in Amsterdam is actually quite poignant in its own right. Consider this brief excerpt from the book describing the end of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam: 

During their time in Holland, the Nazis had stolen everything that hadn't been nailed down. If it had been nailed down, they got a crowbar, pried it free and stole it - then they stole the crowbar. Factories were picked clean of both finished products and the machinery itself. Hospitals, museums, laboratories, libraries, etc. were looted…and of the 4 million bicycles, only 2 million remained, most of which were - as one observe at the time put it - in "extremely poor condition." p.237 - 238.

Though this excerpt isn't exactly 'fun,' it is quite intriguing to gain such a pithy understanding of the depth and breath of the Nazi occupation of the Dutch and their principle means of transport. As Jordan describes the increasingly desperate situation of the Germans during WWII and the increasingly draconian regulations they placed on the Amsterdam cyclists, it's quite easy to grasp and sympathize with their plight even though the events occurred some four generations ago. By the by, instances of history like this make me eminently thankful for America's much maligned Second Amendment. 

Fortunately, not all of the history is entwined with the atrocities of World War II. Among Pete Jordan's more autobiographical accounts, he explains his wife's choice to cycle to the hospital to deliver their first-born son - who, incidentally, was not wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a bike basket:

Two weeks after the baby's due date, we went to the hospital to have the labor induced. To get to the hospital, we could have taken a bus or a taxi. But since she'd been cycling pretty much every day since the baby's conception - this day seemed no different - Amy Joy rode her bike to the hospital to give birth. Eventually…out came a baby boy. We named him Ferris. p.289.

Aside from the fact that his son enjoys a certifiably awesome name, the conversant style above is typical of the vast majority of the book. Readers not only gain a better understanding of the history of cycling in Amsterdam, but also a fine insight into the author and his family during what was surely a formative time in their lives. It's enough to hope one can cycle down to the local pub and grab an Amstel Light with Jordan, et al. Well, certainly grabbing a brewski with Mr. Jordan at any rate. Amstel Light is crap beer. 

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