Spoke, Memory


If the glorious spring weather isn’t reason enough to break out the trusty Schwinn, consider it your civic duty. David V. Herlihy casts the engrossing
Bicycle: The History (Yale) as a tale of utopian vision and social progress. The author glowingly idealizes “self-propulsion” as liberation, urging on the nascent bicycle with all the gritty locomotive spirit of its early proponents. “This particular type of ‘self-moving’ vehicle . . . would run on that most abundant and accessible of all resources: willpower,” he writes. Aided by gorgeous period images, Herlihy traces the bicycle’s development from “boneshaker” to dandy’s luxury to ubiquitous recreational toy, arguing convincingly for its impact on class and gender roles and exulting in its ascent.

While Herlihy’s tome painstakingly builds the modern bicycle, John Glassie’s Bicycles Locked to Poles (McSweeney’s) dismantles it with jarring speed and precision. The latter book consists of a simple sequence of photos capturing, yes, bicycles locked to poles—but there’s a catch, documented in two devastatingly deadpan charts. As the pictures progress, the bikes begin to lose parts. First it’s the occasional brake caliper, then a seat and a wheel, until we see the final arresting image of a fully denuded frame still clinging resolutely to its pole. If Herlihy’s two-wheeler is a catalyst of history itself—one spawning powerful new social modes—Glassie’s is a passive marker of time: His decaying bicycles strikingly recall trees losing their leaves. But the subject is cycles, and that irony works both ways. When Glassie insolently lets the bike get erased, we’re hit with the strongest whiff of empathy for Herlihy’s constructive fervor. (See Glassie’s photos at Jen Bekman, 6 Spring Street, through June 11.)