Book Review: the Immortal Class

Probably because I read all day at work, when I get home I don’t feel like reading. Thus, I rarely seem to finish a book anymore. I’m not a big fiction fan, and lately I’ve found a lot of non-fiction to also be non-interesting.

Such was not the case with Travis Hugh Culley’s 2001 book The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power.

A few weeks ago I became interested in the world of bike messengers. After watching a few videos on youtube, and checking out some related websites, the whole thing just became kind of fascinating. If you’ve ever seen what these guys do in city traffic you’ll understand. I did some searching, and discovered Culley’s book. A quick library request, and it was mine to read.

This book is many things. It is a record of Culley’s early days as a messenger — a record of his progress as he scratched out a living in Chicago. It describes the many hardships that these working-people endure as they play their part in the city’s commercial system. Culley reviews the history of urban planning of Chicago, the role of the bicycle in that plan, and the effects of car culture upon the city. We learn of Culley’s introduction to bike activism and Critical Mass. Culley describes his boyhood friendship with a neighborhood outsider, and the lessons he learned from this unlikely mentor.

…all good stuff…all interesting and well-written…

…but I found learning about the culture of bike messengers to be the most interesting part of this work. The reader learns the culture as Culley does — from beginner to seasoned vet — from the day Travis answers a want-ad while on his last financial legs to his eventual (but not permanent) exit from the business. We learn about the close-knit culture of messengers, the support system they employ, the frantic pace at which they work, the physical danger they face, the “alley cat” races they participate in,  and the diversity of people employed in the industry (from struggling artists working to support their art to people with no goal but to keep riding).

I should also mention that the book is exciting. Culley’s descriptions of flying around Chicago are quite vivid, and really convey the rush of being constantly “in the moment”  in order to avoid disaster while doing his work.

I’ll be purchasing a copy of this for my own little collection at home. Great read.

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