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Riding With Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books

Ted Bishop

Reviewed by Jess Sauer, Fri., Nov. 10, 2006

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Riding With Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books

by Ted Bishop

Norton, 239 pp., $23.95

Riding With Rilke's back cover bears the unfortunate synopsis, "A motorcycle odyssey that combines the sensory seduction of the road with the intellectual rewards of archival research." It would be reasonable to imagine that all roads inside lead to Snoresville, but it would also be wrong. Riding With Rilke is a travelogue and a memoir of ideas, but in the best sense, it's also an unabashed geekfest. It's more a book for people who love books than people who love bikes, but there's something for them, too. Bishop doesn't only give us the stories behind some of modernism's greatest works, he gives us the stories behind the bike he rides and the towns he rides through.

The "odyssey" chronicled in Riding With Rilke takes Bishop from his hometown of Edmonton, Canada, where he's a professor, to Austin's own Ransom Center (there are also narrative diversions, though obviously not by motorcycle, to London; Geneva; Bologna, Italy; and Rome). Bishop's obsession with motorcycles intersects with his passion for books at certain points in this book. He notes with pleasure that Woolf and Camus both wanted motorcycles and that T.E. Lawrence's copy of Ulysses is smudged with motor oil. He establishes a tenuous connection between motorcycling and literature, but he isn't really forwarding any sort of thesis. Though Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values must necessarily cast its shadow over any book that unites intellectualism and biking, the project here is far less serious. Bishop's relaxed and often digressive style hews far closer to Larry McMurtry's Roads: Driving America's Great Highways than Pirsig's philosophical treatise, although unlike McMurtry, Bishop does his darnedest to stay off the interstates.

Still, he covers a lot of ground – especially with regard to modernist literature – but he's never didactic or condescending. He's not trying to make archival research seem badass. He isn't even trying to make motorcycling seem badass, which wouldn't be too difficult to accomplish. He admits a certain glee in the image his Ducati Monster lends him but makes no attempts to paint himself as a rebel or wild one. He pretends he's partaking in espionage while couriering a letter written by Ezra Pound. Bathing Easy Rider-style entails skinny-dipping outdoors, while Bishop confesses that in one hotel he "showered quickly, careful not to touch the shower curtain or the wall." Afterward, he actually goes to a mall and watches The Truth About Cats & Dogs. When a group of Austinites ("They all wore cowboy boots and they all loved books. ... I would never find this in Alberta") tell him they shot a bullet through a copy of Ulysses, he reacts like a gape-mouthed freshman. Despite the bike and the boots, Bishop's kind of a nerd, but since when were the cool kids interesting to talk to?

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