Verlyn Klinkenborg Discovers the Bicycle

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 20 2009 4:34 PM

Verlyn Klinkenborg Discovers the Bicycle

Verlyn Klinkenborg, a New York Times editorial board member and author of the paper's " Rural Life " column, spends most of his time on his upstate New York farm, gazing across meadows and musing on The Splendor of the Goldenrod, The Wisdom of the Barn Mouse, and The Majesty of Henry the Pig's Feed Bag. But occasionally the philosopher-rube scrapes the mud off his boots, has Maw lay out a clean shirt, and ventures into town to meditate upon civilization. In the latest of these adventures, Klinkenborg has discovered a novelty that may yet transform modern life: the bicycle.

In an "Editorial Observer" column published this week under the remarkable title " Individualism, Identity and Bicycles in Northern California "—is it a 500-word newspaper column or a doctoral thesis?—Klinkenborg finds himself on the campus of Stanford University, contemplating "great clouds of cyclists pulsing between classes along the street called Serra Mall ... like so many slowly charged particles in a physics experiment."

This puffed-up prose is typical of Klinkenborg, who may be the windiest windbag in newspaper history. But surely poetry is called for in the case of this column: Klinkenborg is recounting an astonishing spectacle.

At Stanford, he reports, cyclists pilot bikes of assorted makes and gear configurations. Also, they display varying degrees of cycling aptitude. "Some riders are clearly adepts," Klinkenborg writes, while others ride "à la 8 years old, prey to the wobbling clutches of gravity, prone to every distorting posture a bicycle can inflict." The cyclists are clad in a variety of costumes. Some talk on cell phones as they pedal. Many carry bags. It all leaves Klinkenborg in a state of wonder-struck bafflement. "There is a deeply pleasing randomness about the campus cyclists, as though one morning university officials had assigned a bicycle to every member of the Stanford community, come as you are."

There is, indeed, a randomness "about" the campus cyclists, although it has nothing to do with university officials. The fact is, each of these riders has obtained his or her bicycle individually, often by purchasing them at a store specializing in the sale of bicycles. Similarly, the sartorial variety that Klinkenborg finds mysterious is the result of a process, undertaken by each cyclist at his or her place of residence, whereby a suit of clothes is selected and then donned, beginning with undergarments and proceeding to outerwear. Often as not, these fully clothed individuals then fill a satchel or valise with personal belongings—a corncob pipe, say, or a dog-eared copy of Making Hay . This explains the cyclists' "distended bags of every description," which Klinkenborg observes with wide-eyed bewilderment.

In truth, Klinkenborg isn't bewildered at all. But bewilderment is his shtick. Klinkenborg's columns are literary minstrel routines, starring the writer as an idiot savant—a bumpkin-seer who perceives the marvelous in the pedestrian and pivots to "epiphanies" that elude those of us who haven't spent years watching sunlight dapple the snouts of woodchucks.

You and I might stand on Serra Mall and see ... a bunch of college kids biking to class. But Klinkenborg is a fount of gnomic insights. To wit: A bicycle isn't just a bicycle. "Whoever all these cyclists are, as individuals, their individuality is burnished by the bikes they ride and by the way they ride them. It's as though the bikes are only partly transportation, as though they were really machines for differentiation." A few paragraphs later, Klinkenborg rises to his final cadence.  

Truly, we are the only species so discontented with our natural gaits, so ambitious to exceed a foot-pace. It all puts me in mind of Thomas Jefferson, on the subject of walking and horses and their deleterious effect on human exercise.

"I doubt," he wrote, "whether we have not lost more than we have gained, by the use of this animal."

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I know that faux-naiveté is Klinkenborg's mode. But does he expect readers to buy that he's perplexed by the concept of wheeled transport?

Here's a suggestion: Why doesn't Klinkenborg return from Palo Alto, Calif., to his farm at "a foot-pace"? He would save his cash-strapped employer some money on travel funds, for one thing. And he would behold many strange and wondrous sights en route, not excluding the darting of the whippoorwill against the glassy azure and the defecating of the prairie dog in the shade of the stretching oak.

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.

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