Old Books

When I was in school, the chair of our department was an archaeologist and when we arranged to have lectures on codicology, it was very much presented as the "archaeology of the book." Old books are lovely objects, but they don't really excite me, at least not in the way that they excited some of my colleagues. I liked that they were old (I think I'm not unique in appreciating extant Very Old Things), but, you know, it was still just an old book, about which I felt very little sentimental attachment or intellectual curiosity, and, while I might be mistaken in this belief, I suspect that there were much more interesting things in the pre-modern, mostly illiterate world than the contents of very old books, the script used, the vellum, the ink, the binding and all that, even if those other things no longer remained and even if those things couldn't be placed in the middle of an old wooden table at some church rectory library. Refusing to engage with the object on its own terms was my deficiency and not a problem with the manuscript or codicology itself. I just didn't feel it. Anyway.

Sometimes I think about metaphors to better explain what it is to be a bike commuter in a place where a bike commuter isn't a thing a lot of people are expected to be. Once I thought that if the act of commuting, the mass act undertaken by all people trying to get to home or work from work or home, was like a manuscript, then perhaps the bike commuters would be the smaller and less important words in the text. Still integral to the text and still with meaning, but not like the giant letters or the big pictures of the Evangelists or proper names, they exist alongside and carry equal weight in the overall understanding of the text.

I don't really think this anymore.

I think that bike commuters are marginalia. The text is the text and we are not it. We're not even the little and unimportant words or the things that are abbreviated and you'd need a Cappelli to grok. When I think about it, I'm not even really riding on most days in the same physical space as most drivers. We share the road as you might share the dining room at a restaurant, them at the big tables in the middle of the room, well lit and with ample room, and me at a tiny high top cramped between the swinging door entrance to the kitchen and the hallway that leads to the bathroom. For the most part, I'm riding in the gutter and I'm filtering and I'm off to the side between the parked cars and the stopped cars. What is a bike lane but a margin? (And what are we but marginalized?) The roads as they are now weren't exactly designed with us in mind and even the retrofitting of "bike friendliness" seems to be have done with the idea of disturbing the status quo as little as possible. When the text is canon, interpretations are limited.

But being marginalia is freeing. We can question and we can be playful. We can engage the text as little or as much as we want. We can continue to exist on the page without having to march along, evenly spaced on evenly spaced lines.

I rode behind a girl today who was was listening to headphones and bopping her head and drumming on her handlebars and having what appeared to be an absolutely great time. This was on 21st Street and there were blocks upon blocks of drivers blocked by drivers blocking blocks and blocks of intersections. And she just rode past them on the right side, drumming and bopping and I rode behind her and we made it through much faster than anyone in a car made it through. It was nice.


  1. Great post! I had not really thought about bike commuting in terms of being on the margins. Today, as I rode in a bike lane that also happens to exactly where the manholes are, I got angry about where some have decided that bikes should ride. A bike lane perfectly aligned with manholes? Gee, thanks. The margins I think of are at least a clear space, unless they contain someone's edits. Then I arrived to work where I parked next to a bike that had essentially been abandoned in our building garage. I cannot imagine the building allowing a car to be abandoned in a parking spot. Finally, I thought about how bicycling still involves some level of self-governance, and for some reason that thought turned me around. In a way, it's nice to be in that space... the margiinalia. (But I'm still going to make a call about having that bike removed :).)

    1. The margins of a lot of my workbooks are filled with punch holes to allow them to be put in a binder. Analogy complete!

  2. Manholes are the worst! 11th Street is especially bad, where there are utility covers every few feet it seems. It's like, yeah, you've put down a white stripe, but you really haven't done anything special to make this good for bikes. It's frustrating, but I guess that's why I ride a Surly- ready for anything! You're probably right to report that abandoned bike. It should go to a loving home. I wonder if rescue bikes will become like rescue dogs. "Oh, this old thing? It's a rescue," he says smugly as he pets the top tube.

  3. Another winner Mr. Sharrowman.
    The wife of an economics professor of mine once summed up economics as "Marginal this equals marginal that." Why the hell that came to mind after 30 years is beyond me.
    As bad as manhole covers are, grates over the Metro are worse. At the south end of Crystal City an bike lane goes right over grate after grate. It's treacherous.

  4. brilliant

    "...We share the road as you might share the dining room at a restaurant, them at the big tables in the middle of the room, well lit and with ample room, and me at a tiny high top cramped between the swinging door entrance to the kitchen and the hallway that leads to the bathroom..."

  5. Very nicely said. I found myself in the awkward position of being Thanked by a driver the other day. Talk about being caught off guard. When I come of the Rock Creek Trail I have 2+ blocks of Penn to navigate before crossing 3 lanes to make a left turn. I tend to put on the gas on this stretch (as much as I can on the Urban Trucker). When I got to the stop light a driver pulled up in the other turn lane and rolled down the window to THANK me for signaling and working to keep up with traffic. Come to think of it, that last part was a little backhanded...oh well.

    So if we're the marginalia, are we the kind that future readers are going to want to erase, or the kind that will require whole departments of academia to decypher, decode, and otherwise put on a pedestal?

  6. The text is old, boring and can't be changed. The marginalia is fresh, alive and constantly being updated. Sort of like the difference between some outdated textbook and the constantly evolving web.

  7. This was a delightful and thoughtful piece, Brian. Thanks!

  8. Nice analogy. I often think of myself as a sea creature when I'm cycling. I'm a nimble reef fish, and I have to watch out for sharks. I'm a small and lovely part of the ecosystem and my life is contingent on me being very very alert.

  9. Bravo, Brian. You made me THINK, man.