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Monday, June 22, 2009

The Sort of Book You Actually Want to Write: “Big Sid’s Vincati”

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 06/22/09 at 09:48 AM

A friend of mine from graduate school, Matthew Biberman, whom I knew primarily as an ambitious and driven Milton scholar, has written a memoir, not about Milton but motorcycles. The book is called Big Sid’s Vincati: The Story of a Father, a Son, and the Motorcycle of a Lifetime. His book, which has not had a lot of publicity yet in the general media, has come out at the same time as a second memoir about the power of physical involvement in mechanical problems (incidentally also involving working on motorcycles), Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford. Crawford’s book has gotten quite a bit of attention, including a long excerpt in The New York Times Magazine, as well as Kelefa Sanneh’s review in The New Yorker. And Stanley Fish, in his blog at the New York Times, put together a lengthy blog post last week, where he considered Biberman’s book alongside Crawford’s, while also addressing Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values. Here I’d like to attend to Biberman’s memoir on its own terms, though I’ve also added a brief consideration at the end of this blog post that gets at the obvious ‘meta’ question of why this particular kind of knowledge seems to be so satisfying to people who started out their lives with a passion for the abstract liberal arts—literature and philosophy.

1. Vincatis

Since I know many readers will be wondering, I should probably start by explaining the “Vincati”: a “Vincati” is a hybrid bike, with a Ducati frame and a Vincent engine. It brings together the best features of two legendary motorcycles, the 1970s Ducati’s widely praised chassis, and the 1950s Vincent’s powerful twin engine, immortalized by Richard Thompson, in “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” Creating a hybrid bike using largely original parts is a particularly challenging project, both in terms of tracking down the necessary vintage parts and as a matter of mechanical skill. In the case of Matthew and his father, Sid, putting one together after the latter had a nearly-fatal heart attack became a labor of love and a reason for his father to go on living.

The memoir resonated with me in part because Biberman, like myself, came into literary studies from a rather unlikely background – his father was a motorcycle mechanic who never went to college, while he went to elite schools on scholarship, only to struggle somewhat in the early years of life as a “grown-up” in a tenure track academic job. Being a hungry outsider in English studies can give you the motivation and hustle to get through college and graduate school with flying colors, but it’s when you settle down into a tenure track job that you realize that sheer scholarly hustle alone may not make you happy in the intensely bourgeois culture of academia, nor does it give you the continued motivation to keep up the intellectual pace you set in graduate school. Academia has many perks, but for many people it can be a difficult profession to remain passionate about, and a curious sort of disconnection sometimes sets in for people about half-way to tenure. I’m not sure there is any single explanation for it—though, admittedly, the institution of tenure might be part of the problem—so let me just say this: it does not seem entirely an accident that many academics have passions outside of their teaching lives that animate them more than their primary work. 

In Matthew Biberman’s case, that outside passion entailed rediscovering the love of motorcycles he grew up with in the first instance, but which he had put away for many years as he tried to make it first as a novelist and then in literary studies. Big Sid’s Vincati is clearly primarily a motorcycle enthusiast’s book, with some rather technical accounts of the innards of vintage British and Italian motorcycles. It is not a book full of literary metaphors for motorcycle culture, and there is nary an allusion to Shakespeare or Milton anywhere.

Still, since the book is first and foremost a personal memoir, Biberman can acknowledge the development of his career, and the tension that begins to build between the hobby he loves and the academic career he’s committed to professionally. The following dialogue is one that resonated in particular with me as I read it:

While I worked, I told Sid that I had come to a decision about the donor motor. ‘I’ll agree to hopping up the Vincati if you make me a promise.’

‘I’m listening,’ he said.

‘First, you need to know that I am playing a dangerous game of chicken professionally. If I spent too much time out in the garage and lose my tenure, there goes my regular paycheck, plus my benefits, and with Lucy’s condition I just can’t lose my health insurance. But I also know we can’t stop our work out here. So I have to thread the needle and do both: get tenure and be a grease monkey.’

‘Understood,’ Sid said in his gravest tone. ‘What do you want from me?’

‘You have to promise me you will stop asking me about what I am writing.’

This request surprised Sid. It had been going on for months. When we worked, he continually made me talk about Shakespeare and Milton. I’d been working on a dry tome of literary criticism and for some reason Sid was fascinated by it.’

‘Look, I never wanted to write this book in the first place,’ I explained. ‘But now I have no choice. No book, no job—that’s how you get tenure. And when I come out here I just don’t want to think about it.’

‘How can talking about Shakespeare and Milton depress you?’ he said. ‘You always loved books. You always wanted to be a writer—now you are writing a book. How can that be depressing?’

‘Because I never wanted to write this kind of book, okay? I wanted to write the great American novel, be the great American writer. Not become some professor who writes incomprehensible criticism that no one wants to read. Look at you. You wanted to set a record at Bonneville. Well, sometimes our dreams don’t come true. Just leave me alone when it comes to that stuff and let me do what I have to do.’

I looked at him and knew: now he got it. (169-170)

I think many people who have struggled with projects that become professional obligations rather than really rewarding intellectual writing experiences will know where Biberman is coming from at moments like this. In effect, the divide between a literary studies career and an intensely involving hobby involving motorcycles, which Biberman asks his father to accept above, becomes the rule for the memoir as well. Literature and motorcycles are on somewhat separate tracks in Big Sid’s Vincati.

That said, there are some literary reference points in Big Sid’s Vincati here and there. One is Thom Gunn, a poet Biberman writes about encountering while in college. Here are a couple of verses from Gunn’s “On the Move,” which is mentioned (but not quoted) in the memoir at one point:

On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boy,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt—by hiding it, robust—
And almost hear a meaning in their noise.

Exact conclusion of their hardiness
Has no shape yet, but from known whereabouts
They ride, directions where the tires press.
They scare a flight of birds across the field:
Much that is natural to the will must yield.
Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes.

Actually, some beautiful writing there. But as I say, Biberman doesn’t really get into the aesthetics or philosophical attractions of motorcycles all that much (and this is what differentiates his book from something like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or for that matter, Matthew Crawford’s, Shop Class as Soulcraft).

Rather, his is a true insider’s appreciation of motorcycles and biker culture, as an end in itself, rather than as a vehicle for an argument about Kant. The following passage might be a representative moment of motorcycle enthusiasm:

Sid forgot all about his plan to order parts and wandered over to the tent instead. Inside he was surrounded by rare models, special factory projects, and race bikes, both solo and sidecar. He saw a rare Series A twin, a ‘sectioned’ Series A Comet motor, and an ultrarare model W two-stroker, complete with leg shielding. To its right sat a Picador motor, a modified Vincent motorcycle engine developed to propel a drone aircraft, as well as another war ministry project, a Uniflo air-sea rescue lifeboat motor. . . . But it was the tent’s center attraction that brought sweat to Sid’s palms—the legendary works racer, Gunga Din. That bike held more records than any other machine in England, and quite possibly the world. Sid had only read bout it in the magazines, where it was written that if regular rider George Brown wasn’t flung off, he was just about sure to win. (21-22)

Biberman does a very good job transmitting what’s so pleasurable about the world of fast, classic bikes at moments like these. Though I came to this book knowing nothing at all about this stuff, I must admit I’ve slightly caught the bug.  (And no, I’m not thrilled about a British racing motorcycle named “Gunga Din,” even affectionately. Try “Mangal Pande” next time, Vincent enthusiasts…)

But the true poetry in Big Sid’s Vincati is not enthusiasm for motorcycles in general, but the precise mechanical language lovingly applied to describing the Vincent’s engine in particular. Some of Biberman’s technical descriptions of the work he and his father did while working on their five-year labor of love left me wanting to see diagrams, to help me visualize better what he’s talking about. For example:

Here it helps to know a little more about a Vincent motor. The bottom half is called the crankcase and it is compared of two matched pieces, a left and a right, that are bolted together by studs that run horizontally. The front of the crankcase is symmetrical but the rear is not. The left side is longer, extending straight back beyond the clutch housing where it accepts the swingarm pivot shaft. This shape is not matched by the right crankcase. That piece ends earlier and sweeps in to expose the front drive sprocket around which the rear chain runs, so it can turn the back wheel of the bike. Sid had spotted gouging on the longer left-hand side and now wanted to lay a flat file on that surface and reduce it by a few thousandths of an inch. (205-206)

It will remain a little vague in my mind until I see either a detailed 3D diagram or the machine itself, but I admire the mechanical knowledge behind this explanation of a Vincent motorcycle motor.

One has to feel that, through this book, Biberman has been able to reconcile his stated adolescent desire to write the “great American novel,” with the real circumstances and problems he’s faced in life (besides his father’s illness, Matthew and his wife had to deal with a daughter born with a serious congenital heart problem, during roughly the same period he and his father were working on this bike).

Big Sid’s Vincati will undoubtedly appeal to motorcycle enthusiasts, but I suspect it might also appeal to many non-enthusiasts who know what it is to be passionate about something that won’t help you get tenure, and are, consequently, willing to go along for the ride.

2. A Thought on Technical Knowledge vs. Liberal Arts Knowledge

Here we might take a look at Matthew Crawford’s excerpt from Shop Class as Soulcraft, up at the New York Times Magazine. Unlike Matthew Biberman, who is a tenured academic at a respected research university, Crawford left academia shortly after completing his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, aided by the bleak job market. While suffering through that period, he often took recourse to working on motorcycles as a way of focusing his energy productively He then landed what was presumably a high-paying job at a think-tank in Washington DC (probably considerably more lucrative than academia would have been!), but walked away after saving enough money to buy the tools that would enable him to set up his own small motorcycle repair shop. Here is a little bit from Crawford’s description of the work he does now:

The business goes up and down; when it is down I have supplemented it with writing. The work is sometimes frustrating, but it is never irrational.

And it frequently requires complex thinking. In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire.

As in any learned profession, you just have to know a lot. If the motorcycle is 30 years old, from an obscure maker that went out of business 20 years ago, its tendencies are known mostly through lore. It would probably be impossible to do such work in isolation, without access to a collective historical memory; you have to be embedded in a community of mechanic-antiquarians. These relationships are maintained by telephone, in a network of reciprocal favors that spans the country. My most reliable source, Fred, has such an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure European motorcycles that all I have been able to offer him in exchange is deliveries of obscure European beer.

The question I have while reading passages like this is whether the approach to knowledge and problem-solving is really absolutely different from what one does, say, in sitting down to put together a close-reading of a novel.

Isn’t there, in literary studies, also a technical base of knowledge that is acquired partly through exposure to savants ("Fred" in Crawford’s example above could be “Fred Jameson” for an aspiring literary theorist), and partly simply through long experience? Admittedly, most literary critics today de-emphasize technical aspects of literary analysis in favor of historical, contextual, and political thematics. But that doesn’t mean the option to engage in more technical analysis of literary tropes and forms isn’t there for those who are interested in it.

In other words, a possible counter-diagnosis to Crawford’s alienation from first academic, and then white-collar, intellectual labor, might be simply to try doing a different kind of intellectual labor, rather than condemn intellectual labor as a whole as inherently alienating.


Crawford’s book is also reviewed in the New Yorker this week, with references to Pirsig. (Crawford is chastised there a bit for his misogyny.) I thought immediately of Biberman’s memoir, which manifests some of the same concerns. (One can imagine an Amazon tag: “People who bought Soulcraft also bought Big Sid’s Vincati.")

As a Shakespearean myself with DIY skills as well as populist aspirations, I am excited by Biberman’s efforts in this area. But don’t let me near an engine.

By Julia Lupton on 06/22/09 at 07:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Julia, I read that in the New Yorker too, and was surprised.

To keep this post short, I didn’t say very much about the role Matthew’s daughter plays in the narrative in “Big Sid’s Vincati.” In fact, she comes to play a key role, as the person who is to inherit the bike they’re building—once Sid realizes he has too many health problems to ever ride it (his knees are shot). Instead of thinking of it as a project for Sid, they start to think of it as a project for Lucia. And indeed, the book closes with father and daughter going for a ride together on the bike, built at last.

“Big Sid’s Vincati” is still a “guy’s world” kind of book, on the whole, though it’s not constructed via the exclusion of women. (Admittedly, the story does have its share of dysfunctional marriages.) By contrast, Kelefa Sanneh’s review of Crawford’s book makes it sound like his philosophy of motorcycle repair is constructed around that kind of rejection of the supposed “girl’s club” of the white-collar work-place.

Matthew contacted me and said he’d like to bring Melissa Holbrook Pierson (author of “The Perfect Vehicle”—another excellent motorcycles book) into this conversation. She has her own blog, so maybe.

By Amardeep Singh on 06/22/09 at 09:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s funny how the same words can be interpreted in different ways by different readers. I just finished BSV this morning while sitting on a sand dune in Nags Head, North Carolina. The entire experience of reading a published memoir of a childhood friend was so captivating to me. Many of the roads I had taken to get down here are the same roads Sid and Matthew had frequented on their early excursions together. The thoughts and emotions that Matthew offers in his words are deeply personal and make this so much more about a son and a father dealing with their similarities and differences than anything about motor bikes. The bikes seem to me to be more of a bridge to help form a more solid relationship. From a writer standpoint the motorcycles are a vehicle to explore that relationship in the form of a story. I, like writer of this blog, now find myself interested in bikes in a way I could never have imagined. But more so, for reason completely set apart from the mechanics of the bike, I devoured the chapter describing Matthew’s elation with riding the finished product. I don’t have any idea if he meant to make this connection here, but as I read about his pure satisfaction with the speedy and strong Vincati, he describes more than just a joy ride. Rather this was a man proclaiming a comfort and confidence about himself as the son of a compex father with whom he had always shares a bewildering idiosyncratic relationship. In doing so he was better able come to grips with his roll in married life and fatherhood. In doing so he was becoming better aquainted with himself. Congratulations Matthew, as the author of this blog has suggested, you have written the kind of book I actually want to write. It took guts to put all of this on paper for others to read and that is what makes it so great. Thanks for a great read, friend.

By Brandt Williamson on 06/22/09 at 10:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What interested me most about your post was the comment about academics having outside passions which move them more than the academic study which consumed them at an earlier point in life.  I’ve been feeling slightly guilty about that--good to know that it may be normal.

I wonder how many academics have interests that require work with one’s hands, work that at the end of a session, one knows what one has done.  I’m writing this response with fingers made sore by quilting.  I’m much more interested in my quilting than my writing and reading these past weeks.  I see visible signs of progress on my quilt.

I didn’t see any of these books as misogynist, but it did make me ponder the gender issues a bit.  How lucky that Crawford can make a living with his motorcycle passion.  I’m fairly sure that I can’t make a living by quilting.  The trades are much more open to men, still, after so many decades of feminism (and to be fair, perhaps I should say that men continue to be interested in the trades far more than women are).  I don’t see a similar track for women to follow when their lives as knowledge workers fall short of their expectations and tolerance.

By Kristin Berkey-Abbott on 06/23/09 at 05:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It would be hard to be a good literary critic and not want to be a writer of literature.  At least, that’s how I’ve always felt.  But then, some of the best critics are the ones who make great creative leaps in their thought already.  It takes creativity to even appreciate art, I suppose.  The more I learn, the more I see good literature and good criticism as almost indistinguishable from one another.  If we could just get more visual art working in there (maybe a pop-up Vincent motor somewhere in the midst of Biberman’s novel?), we’d really be hitting on all cylinders :)

By on 06/23/09 at 06:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Deep for a post of such deep insight.  And thanks also to Julia, Lynda, Brandt and Kristin for getting the ball rolling in terms of a discussion.

I’ll throw in two observations at this point:  first I think there is a confusion between “knowledge work” and “manual labor work” and the more pressing distinction between work that accomplishes something and work that accomplishes nothing.  The knee-jerk alignment of intellectual labor with pointless work and physical labor with work that does good in the world is simply seductive mistake, one that is easy to see once a writer as good as Deep points it out.  The point is not that we shouldn’t engage in intellectual work but that we need to pursue such work in a satisfying way.

This observation though is probably in tension with the lessons of psychoanalysis.  We may say we want to throw ourselves into meaningful work but we also want to immerse ourselves in passion and I dont think they align quite so easily!  The tension, if we are honest, is that--at least for me--I am drawn at times more strongly to play with wrenches and motorcycle parts then I am to play with computer keys and cites to other scholar’s essays.

Finally, the gender question.  This issue really deserves real thought.  I am haunted by it: if for no other reason than the presence of my daughter.  And the other women in my family.  In some awesome way that I can barely confront, the woman’s account in BIG SID’S VINCATI is written in white ink in the margins.  I felt powerless to alter its placement.  I have often felt that it may fall to Lucy when she is older to write it--if she wants, and if it can be written in some form of “feminine writing” that I greet but can not see on the far side of the horizon.

By Matthew Biberman on 06/23/09 at 09:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There is certainly a place for women in this hands-on discourse. Brandt addresses this in her quilting example. My sister and I have been trying to disseminate DIY design tools, including design thinking, through various books and web sites for a few years now. (It’s no accident that the NY Times asked Ellen to do the illustration for their review of Soulcraft.) Women are certainly not our only audience, but many of our concerns gravitate “that way.” The next step for me: figuring out how to integrate design thinking with my Shakespeare scholarship! In the meantime, Matthew’s example is an inspiring one.

By Julia Lupton on 06/23/09 at 10:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s interesting (I think) that all the things we’re mentioning here--motorcycles, literature, quilting--are considered “escapist,” in other words, on the other side of the division from “the real world.” They’re where you go to get away from it, to dive into something that is both Other and also, paradoxically, perhaps closest to our deepest humanity.  (On this subject, I’d urge everyone to read Steven L. Thompson’s “Bodies in Motion: Evolution and Experience in Motorcycling"--a fascinating book with an amazing thesis about our evolution as animals shaped by movement--and a book that should be taken into account in any discussion of biking literature; take that, Kalefa Sanneh!)

So, these are the places from which we derive passion.  I’ve been in the academic literary world, too, and for a while there it was Melville et al. who drove my engine.  Now that I’m back to bikes, though, after a decade, I find myself enthralled all over again.  And wanting to ditch the book I should be writing--on a subject I felt transporting passion for only two or three years ago.  See: proof we were born to move (on)!

By Melissa Holbrook Pierson on 06/23/09 at 11:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As a fellow poet and writer,I admired the literary restraint at times employed in BSV, and the use of contrast between the joy of speed and familial obligations. Therein i think lies the zeitgeist, (if there is any at present) of this book, and it is that which puts it up there with Zen. Writing about a father figure like Sid Biberman is no easy task, and almost impossible to capture the raw humor and suffering of the physical moments.  I agree that |Lucy with her advanced sense of humor may write the more circumspective motorcylcle
novel in the future. Meanwhile , hail Big Sid and thanks Matthew for writing and riding fearlessly.

By on 06/23/09 at 08:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"chastising....for misogyny” is to miss the subtlety of what Sanneh does in that NYer piece, I think; he’s very perceptive about certain kinds of nostalgia.  one can work with one’s hands, after all, and still engage in meaningless, alientated labor…

By on 06/24/09 at 06:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Melissa, Nick and Jameson for your comments.  In thinking about Crawford’s book, I found myself remembering what it was like to teach shop class.  Actually, it was a community college class called “communication skills” and it was required of all students enrolled in the auto mechanics certificate program.  I did it as a favor to the Chair of the department.  The last time out, a female professor had taught the class and it had nearly broken her.  That was one of the most difficult classes I have ever taught in terms of discipline problems.  Its not all group hugs when it comes to teaching that stuff.  I must blog on it.

By Matthew Biberman on 06/25/09 at 12:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I went ahead and blogged on my experience teaching vocational students.  Read it here and tell me what you think:


By Matthew Biberman on 06/25/09 at 10:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As this conversation may be winding down, I thought I would offer a final comment on the differences between Big Sid’s Vincati and Shop Class.

First it would be interesting to identify all the common motorcycle points see how they are put to use in the two books.  What I do with the observation that you can read an engine’s state of tune from the color of its spark plugs.  Crawford’s way is to take this example and talk about how ultimately a real mechanic is going to trust this over an error code spit out by a computer diagnostic test.

He says directly that he is interested in that “bullshit moment” when you realize that looking up error codes and trusting the computer to do your job for you is not going to solve the problem.  And there is much to think through about this.

His point though is to take us back to the question of the good and the assertion that we help realize a better self and a better community when we abandon computer crutches and trust our ability to read a spark plug in order to figure out the engine’s problem.

My point is to use this material dramatically to illustrate something about the human psyche.  I wish to tell a story that illustrates a psychoanalytic point.  That humans don’t seek the good they act to realize desire and then explain what they did irrationally, after the fact, in rational terms.

What we have then is the age old disagreement between Freud and Heidegger, between psychoanalysis and philosophy--the one between a vision of man as a rational agent and one that sees that vision as a cover for a darker truth: man as an irrational being.

By Matthew Biberman on 06/27/09 at 09:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I found these comments (almost 200 of them started on another blog) as interesting as the article, if not more so.  There is certainly an advantage to be gained in this world by knowing how to solve problems from the ground up.  And I can’t say in my line of work (30 years of software development) that I have not put this to good use in my everyday work. 

I was a kid that started with kit airplanes and then built them from scratch using sheets of balsa and rolls of fabric.  I built model rockets using Estes engines, then refilled the engine casings with my own rocket fuels.  I built my first motorcycle from boxes of parts when I was 17.  It was a CL77, a Honda 305 Scrambler.  I put a big bore kit in it, a new clutch and did my own valve job.  I then installed straight TT pipes that were painted a unique heat resistant white and rejetted the carbs.  With a cool looking Candy Apple Red tank and side covers (painted with rattle cans) and a really strong (and loud) running engine, it was the cat’s meow.  I then went on to rebuild a 68 Norton after that.  From these experiences and the many others that followed I built a foundation that makes me unique in this modern world.  Zen or no zen, I think I have found that balance between form and function.  The classical way of thinking living in harmony with the romantic.

And by the way, unlike Crawford, I am a liberal and proud of it.  Liberals tend to be both thinkers AND doers.  The world would be a better place if people would give in to reason and truth.  But because some are stubborn in their general ignorance or they simply have to stand firm on their beliefs even when they are clearly wrong, it takes compromise to get anything done.

I find it interesting when the book Zen is used to talk about the quality of products.  I find it is more about the quality of life.  But in regards to product quality, I go back to the Jaguar example.  Compared to a typical Honda Civic, let’s face it, an old Jaguar is a comparative piece of junk.  There is little a Jaguar has over a Honda when it comes to function.  And the quality gap is huge when it comes to fit and finish or the specs of every engine that comes off the assembly line.  But where the British cheats the owner when it comes to the qualities that make for a good day to day form of transportation, they provided instead, a quality experience with its looks, its handling and (when it runs) its sound.  So which car has true quality?  They both do!  You can experience the one on the way to work and the other with a ride along the Skyline Drive on a pretty fall day!

By on 08/18/09 at 08:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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