Ted Bishop, Riding with Rilke

I'm of a few minds about Ted Bishop's Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books.

(Background: the book opens with a horrific crash, then we travel with Bishop by bike in the previous months through western North America from Edmonton, Alberta, to Austin, Texas, where he spent time working on James Joyce archival material. The book ends with the recovery after the accident.)

First, it's a book that few enough other people could write that in a way he was born to write it. It would have been a real shame if he hadn't managed the complex task of writing this book, and then the even more complex task of getting it published in a form he was happy with. It must have been very gratifying for everyone who knew him on his path. Obviously it meant something to more people than that, or it wouldn't have been a finalist for the Governor General's Awards in 2005, but I do think that there's more to like here for people who know Bishop already.

Second, I really enjoyed the reflections on place from his travels through western North America, from Edmonton to Austin and back, especially the complex little differences between small towns and road surfaces and wind temperatures. There are seeds of a dozen worthwhile essays (or books!) about how one experiences place as a reader, and how one experiences place as a biker (or "rider," as Bishop comes to define himself). 

Third, I kind of wish that Bishop had written another non-fiction book first. For me, this one took a little while to achieve the kind of sophistication that the final two-thirds had. The prologue was gripping and well written, but the opening chapters lacked a little sharpness in the delivery somehow. I can't find specific things that got to me, in part because it took me too damn long to give the book the time it deserved, but something about it felt like pieces to me, rather than like a single united work. I just think maybe if he had had the chance to practice on a book that was less important to him, then this one would have been better -- but what do I know, maybe the really terrific one is still to come!

A good read, though not one of my favourites for the year.


Anonymous said…
I like your reading here- as a motorcycle rider and a modernist scholar i thought i'd love this book, but after two starts and no traction on my third attempt i skipped ahead to part 2 and the writing/riding really opens up, smooth easy style with biographical and scholarly gems along the way. good stuff.
richard said…
Wow, there are two motorcycle-riding modernist scholars? Teasing.

It's been a while since I read Riding with Rilke, but my opinion hasn't changed. It's a sound travel book about the western edge of the American plains, inflected with details about modernist literature, but I'm not sure it has much interest outside that market. I like Ted, but like I said, I wished he'd had another book to practice on first, because no one else could have written this story - and I wish he'd had more of an opportunity to develop his skills.

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