Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration: Edited by Chris Carlson, 256 pgs.

Apr 13, 2011

Let me start by explaining something about criticism. When something is important to you, and you know much and care even more about it, you have a lot more to point out when something refers to it than if it is something you know little about. For an example, one friend who is only into punk and hardcore thought that 24 Hour Party People was a decent film about the Manchester music scene, whereas my roommate who liked all the bands involved picked it apart for three hours after viewing it. One also finds more to pick apart in a good, complex argument. When I was in art school, teachers ripped apart an amazingly talented guy named Chris for details such as having too much brown in his paintings, while they glossed over lesser artists with “that’s nice.” It is easier to point out the flaws in something good than something bad.

That said, this is a good book, I dare say an important book. But it is not the book it could have been, nor the book I would have liked it to be. With any anarchist – or, to shy away from a loaded term – or hierarchical group or movement, those who organize, create, or edit something that attempts to showcase the group try not to do too much talking on behalf of anyone but themselves. Thereby, it is clear Chris isn’t writing a book – he is editing one. I, for one, think I would have liked to see him write more. This reviewer has ridden in a few critical masses in a few cities, so I am a bit immersed in the culture discussed, but it seems to me that someone less familiar first hand might appreciate a bit more in an introduction. As it is, much of the content was culled from existing material – articles, editorials, essays, flyers given out at actual masses, CM online group posts – all originally published in a certain context. It makes me wonder who this book is for; much of it references topics that critical mass riders are well-versed in, and I am not sure if it is an introduction so much as an unguided immersion for a novice.

Another issue with the disjointed collection of articles is that many of them are written by people who never expected to have their articles run side by side with other articles. The same points are made again and again. This may shock the reader to hear, but those of us who ride bikes consider ourselves to be smarter, healthier, happier and more environmentally friendly than those who drive cars (as if these are mutually exclusive – although the book is very pro-Nike as opposed to anti-car) and boy, do we ever like to tell people about it!

I think my biggest problem with this book is the focus on San Francisco. By no means is it exclusively about San Fran’s mass. It refers to masses all over the country and in several other major cities throughout the world. And indeed, San Fran is the home of one of the most amazing monthly bike rides. But it seems to walk the fence between wanting to be about Critical Mass as a concept, which would discuss ‘Frisco a bit more than any other city, and wanting to be solely about San Fran. Perhaps a book that almost exclusively was about one city could have plunged into greater detail and be more focused, allowing the reader to see one city as an example of what another could do, instead this comes across as a San Francisco-oriented book that is mindful that maybe it should have representation of others. It reminds me of how my high school yearbook committee had lots of pictures of their friends, but not so many that anyone complained about it.

Anyway, if you want to hunt me down and buy me a beer, I can complain about this book more, but all nitpicking aside, this is a good book all in all. It’s one of those weird books that can be enjoyed as it is by bike punks, activists and people who just like bikes; a gift to those who love but are confused by the aforementioned; and likely will wind up required reading it in college classes with “far-out” professors. –Rich Mackin (AK Press, 674 A 23rd St., Oakland, CA94612-1163)



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