July 2006

Classifying Motorcycle Writing: A Preliminary Consideration

Steven Alford and Suzanne Ferriss

While the overall output of books on motorcycles may seem small, generic divisions can be discerned.  Motorcycle books can typically be classified into several broad categories.  We welcome readers’ reactions, disagreements, comments, additions, etc.

Memoir: Why I ride  
The classic books in this area are Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Perfect Vehicle (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997) and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (William Morrow, 1974).  Chuck Zito’s Street Justice (St. Martin's, 2002) offers the professional tough guy perspective.  Others include Sonny Barger’s Hell’s Angel (William Morrow, 2000), Richard LaPlante’s Hog Fever (Forge, 2002), Gary Paulsen’s Pilgrimage on a Steel Ride (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997), and more.
Another specific sub-category is the female motorcyclist book, generally concerned with issues of motorcycling and gender.  Examples include Sasha Mullins’ Bikerlady (Citadel Press, 2003) and Ann Ferrar’s Hear Me Roar (Whitehorse Press, 1996)

Sociological Studies: Who is the motorcyclist?
The best book of the numerous books in this area is Daniel Wolf’s The Rebels (University of Toronto, 1997) along with Arthur Veno’s The Brotherhoods (Allen & Unwin, 2002).  Hunter Thompson’s more journalistic Hell’s Angels (Ballantine, 1967) probably falls into this category.  A more salacious example would be Yves Lavigne’s Hell’s Angels (Lyle Stuart, 1987). Rich Remsberg’s Riders for God (University of Illinois Press, 2000.) is a photographic exploration of American Christian bikers. Another example of this category more narrowly construed would be Brock Yates’ Outlaw Machine (on Harley-Davidson) (Broadway Books, 1999).
Outside of America, books have focused on the conflicts between the Mods and Rockers in Britain, including Johnny Stuart’s Rockers (Plexus, 1987) and Terry Rawlings’ Mod: A Very British Phenomenon (Omnibus Press, 2000).  The Japanese bosozoku or “speed tribes” are the focus of Ikuya Sato’s Kamikaze Biker (University of Chicago Press, 1991) and, with less scholarly rigor, shall we say, by journalist Karl Taro Greenfeld in Speed Tribes (1994).  Photographer Masayuki Yoshinaga offers images of the men and their machines (Trolley Limited, 2002).

Motorcycle Travel Books
This surprisingly large category contains books such as Robert Edison Fulton, Jr.’s 1937 book One Man Caravan (Whitehorse Press, 1996), Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels (Jupitalia, 1979), Alan Noren’s Storm (Travelers' Tales, 2000), Rif Haffar’s Away from My Desk (Ameera, 2002), Jim Roger’s Investment Biker (Adams Media Corporation, 1994), Christopher P. Baker’s Mi Moto Fidel (The National Geographic Society, 2001), Johnny Bealby’s Running With the Moon (Arrow Books, 1995), Chris Scott’s Desert Travels (The Traveler's Bookshop, 1996), Helge Pedersen’s 10 Years on Two Wheels (Elfin Cove Press, 1998) and Ted Bishop’s Riding with Rilke (Penguin Canada, 2005).
In addition to travel essays, there’s an array of books with practical information about motorcycle traveling, such as Dale Coyner’s Motorcycle Journeys Through the Appalachians (Whitehorse Press, 1995) or John Hermann’s Motorcycle Journeys Through the Alps and Corsica (Whitehorse Press, 2002).

Books on Specific Marques

These books explore the history and mechanical aspects of a particular motorbike marque.  Among the countless books on this topic are Udo Riegel’s BMW Motorcycles (Osprey, 1999), Tod Rafferty’s Harley-Davidson (Courage Books, 2002), John Carroll’s The Classic Indian Motorcycle (Salamander Books, 1996), and Mick Walker’s Royal Enfield: The Complete Story (Crowood Press, 2003).

Books on Riding Improvement
These books are concerned with the technical details of riding skill.  Examples include David Hough’s Proficient Motorcycling (BowTie Press, 2000) and Reg Pridmore’s Smooth Riding (Whitehorse Press, 2004).

Motorcycle Fiction and Film
One of the first stories on motorcycling was directed at children: Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift and his Motorcycle (1910).  John Berger’s To the Wedding (Pantheon, 1995) describes an individual’s reflections while on a motorcycle journey.  But interestingly, motorcycle fiction appears to have focused on women riders: André Pieyre de Mandiargues’ The Motorcycle (La Motocyclette, 1963) and the novels of the the “Mad Dog Rodriguez” trilogy, by author and cartoonist Erika Lopez (Flaming Iguanas, Simon & Schuster, 1997; They Call Me Mad Dog, 2001; and Hoochie Mama, 2001).
On film, Mike Seate’s Two Wheels on Two Reels is an excellent resource.  More recent books include Bill Osgerby’s Biker: Truth and Myth: How the Original Cowboy of the Road Became the Easy Rider of the Silver Screen and The Big Book of Biker Flicks : 40 of the Best Motorcycle Movies of All Tiime compiled by John Wooley and Michael H. Price. 

The Motorcycle as Aesthetic Object
The Guggenheim catalog, The Art of the Motorcycle (1998) is an impressive contribution.  The customizing craze has led to a spate of books including Art of the Chopper (Motorbooks, 2003) and Choppers: Heavy Metal Art (Motorbooks, 2004) and Construing motorcycles loosely to include scooters, one might also include Vespa: Style in Motion (Chronicle Books, 2004).