Friday, March 1, 2013

Between the Lists: Dispatch from the Karl Kronicles

With the MB 2000 Project back on track, I’m turning my attention to my other winter cycling project, reading Karl Kron’s footstool of a book, Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle (1887). I’m only about ten chapters in (one sixth of the total), but I’ve got a pretty good sense of how the book works and what I’m in for the rest of the way. So far, the reading experience is mostly tedious. Although I’ve found the occasional gem of a line (“No vehicle invented by man ever stood in so little need of ‘regulation’ (to prevent interference with the rights and pleasures of others) as does the modern bicycle”), for the most part, reading this book feels akin to pedaling into a stiff headwind. It’s a grind, and I’m beginning to wonder if it will take me ten thousand hours to get through it.

Here’s the thing about Kron’s book. It’s not narrative in any normal sense. Rather, it is a “record” or “log” (his words) of his cycling life—brief accounts of where he rode his bike and when, often providing just those two pieces of information and little else. The result is a bunch of lists—page after page of lists. Any details he does offer aren’t generally about the places he travelled to at all, so much as about the road surfaces (“I found a discouraging amount of sand alongside the park”), breakdowns, headers taken (recall the “great original elbow-breaking of May 29, 1879”), exact routes, stopping points, and—always—precise distances (“My cyclometer showed 29 ¼ miles”). (Interestingly, Kron never mentions speed; times and distances, yes, but he insists he doesn’t pay any heed to actual speed of his travel. If anything, he seems proud of how slowly he cycled places and disdainful of “showy racers.”) 

Kron is obsessed with numbers. And I don’t just mean the ceaseless compiling of distances travelled. Rather, there’s something weirdly talismanic about his attention to numerology. For instance, he talks about how he rode a 46-inch wheel, an “unusual and distinctive” choice for the era. Most high-wheel bicycles in the 1880s went by the bigger-is-better approach to wheel diameter, assuming that this would make for a faster ride. Wheels as large as 60 inches were not unheard of. But Kron preferred a more compact 46” mount and not just because of his stature (he was 5’5”, he tells us). Turns out he was born in 1846 and this “sentimental consideration” goes a long way in his book. 

Similarly, his first bicycle was a Columbia No. 234, and he goes on at length about the significance of this number, how the cost of the machine was, in effect, $234, if you combine what he paid for it together with his surgeon’s bill to repair his smashed elbow. Not only that, but in another chapter he sets out to describe the first 234 rides he took on his Columbia 234. It’s hard to tell if Kron’s trying to by funny or if he really believes in all this number-magic. Either way, it’s clear that he cares more about numbers than people or places.

What did Kron see in the lands he cycled across? What of the scenery and people in New Jersey or Bermuda? Who knows? Although Kron travelled widely across eastern North America, there’s little difference between his accounts of Kentucky and Nova Scotia: the little number-filled bicycle-bubble Kron seemed to exist inside is pretty much the same wherever he goes. 

Reading this stuff is sort of like reading a phone book. Lots of information, some of it potentially useful, presented in an orderly fashion, with lots of numbers—but no story. To be fair, Kron is up front about this. He warns on the first page of the book that it is “designed less for reading than for reference.” The copious indices are meant to allow readers to look up, say, the condition of road surfaces on Staten Island. (See page 156.) He doesn’t want us to read the book from cover to cover, like I’m trying to do.

Yet I find I can’t quite give up on the linear reading project because every now and then I catch glimpses of Kron the man amidst all the figures and descriptions of macadam and Belgian paving and loose gravel. Here and there flashes of this eccentric character shine through.  Kron addresses this feature in his preface as well, observing that although his book is a compilation of facts, “reporting the roads of a continent,” it also contains an autobiography of sorts, “between the lines.” 

He’s right. Gradually, out of the lists, emerges a fascinating portrait of the man. We learn of not just Kron’s thing for numbers, but also his penchant for cold baths, his almost complete lack of mechanical aptitude, his strong feelings about clothing, his preference for riding solo, his love for NYC’s Washington Square (“the real centre of the world”), his fondness for his beloved bulldog, Curl, and his shameless, almost juvenile self-boosterism: he seems to have truly believed that he was great pioneer of, and an unparalleled authority on, cycling. (He frequently reminds us that he has ridden his bicycle “over a greater stretch of American soil than any other wheel known to the records of bicycling.”) 

So, I keep grinding on, scanning through the catalogues of description, gleaning the personal details, compiling my own “record” or “log” of Kron’s character, between the lists.

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