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Books review: What to read in September

BY James Walton

7th Sep 2022 Book Reviews

Books review: What to read in September

A deep dive into the history of the bicycle and Ian McEwan's newest ambitious novel, these are our recommended September reads

Lessons by Ian McEwan

Berliners helping each other to climb over the Berlin WallAmong other historical events that impact his growing up, Ian McEwan's character has a front row seat to the fall of the Berlin Wall

At this stage, Ian McEwan could be forgiven for coasting a bit. Now 74, he soared clear years ago of such former competitors as Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie to become established as Britain’s leading literary novelist.

Yet, not only is Lessons his longest novel so far, but it’s also one of his most ambitious: a book that sets out to explore the strange mixture of personal experiences and historical forces that shape a life.

The protagonist is Roland Baines who, like his creator, had the luck to be born “in 1948 in placid Hampshire, not Ukraine or Poland in 1928”. As a result, he grew up believing that “the world was sympathetic and fair” and would look after him.

Of course the Second World War cast a shadow, but not necessarily a malevolent one. After all, “if Hitler hadn’t invaded Poland”, his soldier-father wouldn’t have been invalided back from Dunkirk to Aldershot, and wouldn’t have met his mother. In short, Roland wouldn’t have been born.

"A book that sets out to explore the strange mixture of personal experiences and historical forces that shape a life"

And from there, the “commonplace and wondrous” intertwining of global history and everyday life continues—explaining, among much else, how Roland meets his wife, how he comes to have a ringside seat at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and how his post-1989 optimism led to a conviction (as it turned out, a misguided one) that tolerant liberalism would prevail for generations.

But, as for most of us, the importance of these wider social forces is only clear to Roland when he thinks about them. The rest of the time it’s the equally commonplace and wondrous business of daily living that dominates, parenthood in particular.

Towards the end, set in the gloomy present day, he realises that, thanks to ordinary family life, he’s experiencing “happiness that could not be dispelled, even by rehearsing every looming disaster in the world”—adding ruefully “It made no sense”.

For all McEwan’s craft, Lessons doesn’t perhaps hang together completely, sometimes feeling (admittedly, like many human lives) cobbled together from various random elements.

Fortunately, with one or two exceptions, all these elements—whether historically dramatic or quietly domestic—are so beautifully done as to provide abundant proof of why McEwan still occupies that number-one spot.

Lessons by Ian McEwan book cover, illustration of boy playing piano

Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle by Jody Rosen

Illustration of two Victorian women chatting with bicycles in parkJody Rosen's book shows how the history of the bicycle intersects with social and political progress around the world

As with wheeled suitcases, it’s perhaps surprising that bicycles, with their simple design, didn’t become part of human life sooner.

After various primitive 19th-century versions had some limited appeal, it was only in the 1890s that the coming of the safety bike and pneumatic tyres led to the first cycling boom.

Not that everybody was keen. As the US writer Jody Rosen shows in this terrific book, the arguments between horse-users and cyclists then were eerily similar to those between motorists and cyclists today.

The people on two wheels were accused of ignoring traffic rules and generally getting in the way.

For their part, cyclists pointed to the pollution caused by horse manure—and their own virtuous refusal to add to it.

The idea of cycling as a progressive force was further strengthened by its transformation of women’s clothing, as whale-bone corsets and hooped skirts controversially gave way to more bike-friendly garb.

Meanwhile, the new sense of freedom felt to many cyclists like “flying”—which, as Rosen also shows, isn’t purely metaphorical. For one thing, bikes do travel above ground on a band of compressed air. For another, the Wright brothers were originally bicycle mechanics who saw aviation as a natural next step.

Rosen covers all the aspects of cycling that you could imagine—and some than you possibly couldn’t (or in the case of bike porn, might not want to).

As he discusses the vital role played by bikes in the Boer War, the Vietnam War and the transformation of China, we realise once again that the history of anything is the history of everything.

Central to the book, though, is Rosen’s convincing belief that the biggest cycling boom of them all is happening right now:

"As he discusses the vital role played by bikes in the Boer War, we realise that the history of anything is the history of everything."

"The bike’s pre-eminence is irrefutable. There are approximately one billion cars in the world today. There are twice as many bikes. The number of bicycles manufactured this year in China alone will exceed the total worldwide production of automobiles.

The cities and towns we inhabit, our economies, our laws are designed for cars; we hop between continents on airplanes. Yet we live on a bicycle planet.

Around the world, more people travel by bicycle than by any other form of transportation.

The bicycle is the primary means of transport in the rural hinterlands of the Southern Hemisphere and in city centres of northern European capitals. There are 23 million bicycles in the Netherlands—five million more bikes than there are Dutch citizens.

Almost anyone can learn to ride a bicycle. Nearly everyone does.

The bicycle’s ubiquity is a testament to its versatility. A bicycle is a vehicle for transport and for sport, for leisure and for labour.

We ride bicycles to deliver the mail, to tour the countryside, to burn calories and tone muscles. A bike can be a child’s toy and a commuter vehicle that brings that child’s mother to work.

Bikes are people movers and load bearers, carriers of bodies and carters of stuff. Thousands of pedal-driven taxis jam the streets of Singapore and Manila.

Subsistence farmers in Vietnam, India and other countries use modified bikes to plough and till and harrow. In Peru, bicycles function as mobile fruit and vegetable stalls; in Zambia, cycles bring goods to marketplaces and the sick to hospitals.

In much of the world, it is pedal power that keeps cities running, that keeps commerce flowing, that stands between life and death.

The bicycle’s continuing relevance upends myths of progress, challenging our convictions about history’s steady forward march and the linear course of technological advancement.

Other 19th-century inventions—the steam engine, the typewriter, the telegraph, the Daguerreotype—have been rendered obsolete or modernised beyond recognition.

The bicycle, though, is essentially unchanged, a machine of improbable simplicity, elegance, and ingenuity: two wheels of equal size, two tyres, a diamond-shaped frame, a rear chain drive, a pair of pedals, handlebars, a seat—and on that seat, a human being who is both the vehicle’s passenger and its engine.

This was the design of English inventor John Kemp Starley’s breakthrough Rover bicycle of 1885.

The bicycle Maurice Garin pedalled to victory in the inaugural Tour de France in 1903, the bike Albert Einstein rode around the Princeton University campus, the Flying Pigeon roadster enshrined by Deng Xiaoping as a glory of China’s social covenant; the bikes ridden by food deliverymen, by weekend warriors wrapped in spandex, by ‘anarcha-feminist’ cycling collectives; my bicycle, your bicycle—they’re all more or less the same machine, barely modified versions of that pioneering Rover.

Two Wheels Good by Jody Rosen book cover, black and white photo of family riding bicycle

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