Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books
By Ted Bishop
W.W. Norton, 2006
Michael J. Chappell
This is a very good book about one man’s motorcycle journey, and it deserves a large audience. Though a non-academic readership may very well find the book appealing, I fear that its heavy focus on Bishop’s adventures in the literary archives in Texas or London might not grab a non-academic audience as strongly as it grabbed me—a fellow literature professor who enjoys a good literary investigative yarn as heartily as a well-written motorcycle travelogue. Riding with Rilke is a good combination of these two narrative threads, and if you appreciate exploring new places, then this book is for you.
Bishop teaches literature at the University of Alberta, and he creates in this book a modernist text that in its structure and stream-of-consciousness flow pays due homage to the two modernist authors of most importance to him and to his book—Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Bishop has largely adapted elements of modernist style to his own writing, creating in the process an eminently enjoyable text that, through its flow from idea to seemingly unconnected idea, leads the reader on a complex journey that entails a motorcycle trip from Edmonton, Alberta to Austin, Texas, spiced with road, restaurant, and motel commentary, reflections on motorcycling, as well as explorations in library archives that at times—as when he holds Virginia Woolf’s suicide note—sends chills through a reader. In fact, Bishop is probably the only person to have held Woolf’s suicide note and visited the monument commemorating Evel Knievel’s failed Snake River Canyon jump. It is this kind of linking of disparate events that makes Riding with Rilke an entertaining and oftentimes surprising read.
The first part of the book details the trip from Edmonton to Austin—viewing the natural and literary sights, traveling the roads, enduring the weather, coping with motels and restaurants of questionable quality, cruising through small town America, providing a plethora of detail and amusing stories, as any good travelogue should. The flow of ideas and impressions is energetic and enjoyable as Bishop covers a lot of ground, both physically and figuratively. Particularly humorous is the opening chapter in which he purchases the Ducati Monster that he rides on the trip. He feebly attempts a failed negotiation to reduce the price of the bike, then is exultant and ironic in the end: “I got the Monster for full retail,” he deadpans. “But that’s okay. I would have paid more.”
The second part of the book details his archival travels and scholarly work on Woolf and Joyce. Though I found his comments on the challenges and thrills of archival research quite engaging, I fear that general readers might find this less interesting. It is by no means dryly written—Bishop’s style is strong and full of energy throughout—but the subject matter is esoteric and will register most fully with the relatively small number of motorcycling academics most familiar with the type of work Bishop is conducting. On the other hand, he does a good job of recording for a non-academic audience just what it is academics do when they are not in the classroom.
Bishop makes a strong connection between archival work and motorcycling when he notes that “silence surrounds them both.” He compares the silence of the library and the silence of the ride—not that one does not hear the sound of the motorcycle and the rush of the wind—rather, silence in the sense that “even if you have companions you can’t talk to them until the rest stop, when you’ll compare highlights of the ride. You may be right beside them, but you’re alone. It is an inward experience. Like reading.”
The third part of the book records Bishop’s ride home to Canada from Austin. Again, it is full of entertaining stories about the sights he sees and the people he meets, written in an engaging, often humorous voice. He is a likable narrator with sardonic reflections on American culture. For example, his expectations of Las Vegas, generated and filtered through the media, are shattered: “No Mafiosi, no showgirls, no high rollers. No sharkskin suits, no Versace gowns. . . . I had made my ride through hell to reach the scintillating Sin City, the Cesspool of corruption and concupiscence, the spawning ground of VLTs—and it turned out to be a shopping mall with slot machines.”
Bookending Bishop’s odyssey is the harrowing tale of a motorcycle crash, of broken bones and collapsed lungs and months of recovery, after crashing while riding his girlfriend’s BMW. The thrill of the open road and the excitement of the archive are muted by the ever present threat (and exhilaration) of riding on two wheels. Yet in the end, after a year of recuperation, when the Ducati dealer calls to ask what to do with the Monster (it had been in for its annual maintenance when Bishop crashed the BMW), Bishop conquers his fears and returns to the saddle. It is a suitable ending to one man’s journey on a bike that most people would not consider a touring machine, crossing a continent from north to south with side trips to London, Rome, and New York, confronting a myriad of people and places and recording his thoughts and experiences for us to enjoy. This is an eminently satisfying read that will bear re-reading over the years.
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