Book Review: Readings

Ted Bishop


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?

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by Jess Sauer
After Dark
An unimaginative Murakami makes for a middling piece of work

June 8, 2007

The McSweeney's Book of Poets Picking Poets

May 18, 2007


Riding With Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books, Ted Bishop

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle