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

A friend of mine from graduate school, Matthew Biberman, whom I knew primarily as an ambitious and driven Milton scholar, has written a memoir about not 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 cite the aesthetics or philosophical attractions of motorcycles (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.