Sunday, November 21, 2010

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Writing by Derek Winkler

Hi there. My name's Derek and I've just published a novel called Pitouie. You can read all about it over at The Workhorsery. I'm getting the plug out of the way first because the rest of this post will have absolutely nothing to do with Pitouie. The rest of this post will be about motorcycles.

"It's a picture of my grandfather on his bike," Derek Winkler wrote when he e-mailed
the photo. "These machines, they get in the blood."

I got my motorcycle license when I was 17. When I was 19 I became an English major. It seemed obvious that I should write a book about about motorcycles. The resulting work was a magic realist road trip novel so irredeemably awful that innocent persons might be driven to madness by just by reading it. I keep the single extant copy on an Amiga floppy disk under lock and key.

When a writer gets on a motorcycle, something strange happens. All it takes is a few miles of riding, and that writer will begin to feel an irresistible urge to tell the world about the spiritual transformation it has engendered within him. (I use the word "him" because this phenomenon seems to afflict at least 1,000 men for each stricken woman.) Let's take a look at some of these books. To keep this post from completely filling the hard drive, I'll limit things to five books that I have right here on my shelf.

The Motorcycle Diaries, by Ernesto "Che" Guevara (written in 1952, published in 1993)
Bike of Choice: 1939 Norton 500

In 1952, an asthmatic 23-year-old medical student set out from Buenos Aires, Argentina with his best bud on an 8,000 km ramble around South America. He would later look back on this trip as the social awakening that led him to become a celebrity revolutionary. It must have been some time later because not much awakening happens in the book, which consists mainly of bland descriptions of the places they went, the people they met, and the occasional aside about how much it sucks to be poor. Motorcycle enthusiasts should note that the bike breaks down about a third of the way through and they spend most of the trip hitchhiking. This is probably why the original Spanish title is simply Travel Notes.

Bike of Choice: 1964 Honda SuperHawk

This book had a profound effect on me when I read it in high school. This book and my first bike (a 1981 Yamaha Exciter -- 185cc's of pure adrenaline) led directly to the creation of my Necronomicon of a novel. Now I can't remember a damn thing about it. There's an unnamed narrator, his son Chris and a couple of friends, plus there's a guy called Phaedrus who may or may not exist. They're all riding across the American mid-west to California, and whenever they stop they fall into long philosophical conversations about Quality. I remember taking away two lessons from this book: 1) A real motorcyclist knows how to take care of his machine. 2) A real motorcyclist carries on Socratic dialogues in his head to pass the miles.

Jupiter's Travels, Ted Simon (1979)
Bike of Choice: 1973 Triumph Tiger

This is the real deal. Ted Simon is a hero to legions of what are now called "adventure motorcyclists." So Che Guevara travelled 8,000 km in a year? Big fat hairy deal. Simon travelled 126,000 km over four years and crossed 45 countries, often over dirt tracks and through places that didn't really want him to be there. And he didn't do it because he was seeking enlightenment. He did it just to do it, because it seemed like the best kind of life to him. If you're thinking of going on a long ride and you can only read one book on this list, read this. It's the only one with practical advice on rough-and-ready motorcycle travel.

Ghost Rider, by Neil Peart (2002)
Bike of Choice: BMW R1100 GS

For Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist of the finest rock band in history, it was not a good year. It was, without overstatement, just about the worst year a man could possibly have. In August 1997, his daughter died in a car crash. Ten months later, his wife died of cancer. He spent a few months staring at the wall (one presumes contemplating various methods of suicide), then he went for a long motorcycle ride. Over 14 months he moved 55,000 miles, through Canada, the US, Latin America and back. And, little by little, he felt better. He found that life was still worth living. Motorcycles: Good for the soul.

Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford (2009)
Bike of Choice: Anything broken

This one's a bit of an anomaly. Rather than a book about the transformational power of riding a motorcycle, this one is about the transformational power of fixing a motorcycle. As my own bike is currently tragically broken, I was keen to read this one. Crawford had a Ph.D in political philosophy and a sweet gig at a swanky think tank, but he couldn't shake the nagging feeling that he wasn't doing anything, ya'know, useful with his life. So he quit and opened a motorcycle repair shop. Then he wrote the kind of book about fixing bikes that only a doctor of philosophy can write. This ain't no Chilton manual. But it may help you decide whether you'd be happier in a white collar or a blue collar, or maybe best of all, a grease-stained set of mechanic's overalls.


  1. I prefer a bike to a motorcycle, but I can understand the appeal. Can't say I enjoyed Zen and the Art though.

  2. Great short list. I've read them all and they are all worth reading at least twice. Jupiters Travels is still my favorite. I come back to it over and over.

  3. These are all great books. I'm reading Shop Class as Soulcraft right now.

    There is also a pretty damn good blog called Bikes and Buddies , which tells true stories of motorcycles and the people and culture that surround them.


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