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Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books

by Ted Bishop

With his new book, Riding with Rilke, Edmonton academic and motorcycle aficionado Ted Bishop wholeheartedly embraces the admonition to “write what you know,” with impressive results. While the thought of a mild-mannered English professor discovering the pleasures of Italian motorcycles may not sound scintillating to many readers, Bishop’s account of a motorcycle odyssey from his teaching job in Edmonton to the Ransom Center in Austin, Texas (“the best archive in the world of British Modernist writers”), is charming and engrossing.

Bishop proves to be an impressive tour guide, chronicling the facts and foibles of the small towns he visits with an informed and appreciative (and frequently self-deprecating) sense of humour. He strikes a fine balance between the motorcycle content and the literary content. The borders between the two worlds often blur, as when Bishop recounts T.E. Lawrence’s love of riding (he died in a motorcycle accident) and later explores Lawrence’s two first editions of Joyce’s Ulysses. Similarly, Bishop’s tour of the Ducati factory in Bologna en route to a Joyce symposium in Rome demonstrates just how inseparable his interests have become.

One quickly becomes aware of the fertile, effervescent quality of Bishop’s intellect. Everything seems to inspire him, and he writes winningly of both the physicality of the road and the joys a scholar finds in a good archive. His account of holding Virginia Woolf’s suicide note in the British Museum is as exhilarating as his description of riding through summer storms.

Perhaps to heighten the book’s sense of drama, Riding with Rilke is bookended by accounts of a horrific accident that left Bishop considerably slowed and hesitant to return to the saddle. These segments are the weak links in an otherwise impressive work: the prologue leading up to the accident makes promises that the book doesn’t deliver, while the epilogue, showing Bishop’s recovery, seems perfunctory.

Thankfully, the bookend sections do little to detract from Riding with Rilke. For bike buff or book nut, there is more than pleasure enough in the main text to warm body and spirit.