Thursday, March 19, 2009

Book Review: Bodies in Motion

Why do we ride motorcycles? Why hurl ourselves down the road on thoroughly impractical machinery, in all manner of weather and road conditions? Why do we get a kick out of being leaned over at crazy angles, trusting our well-being to rubber contact patches the size of a half-dollar? Why do we get a rush from a quickly-accelerating motorcycle? Are the reasons biological, spiritual, or something else entirely? Are we programmed for this activity, or are we exercising free will? Former road racer, moto-journalist, novelist, historian, illustrator, and aircraft pilot Steven Thompson provides some answers...or at least some food for thought. I tiptoed into this 417 page book, Bodies in Motion, Evolution and Experience in Motorcycling, with some initial trepidation, not convinced I wanted to know the answer, as experience informs me that once one knows (or pretends to know) why one is doing something, self-consciousness alters the behavior pattern. In short, too much analysis can ruin all the fun.

I eventually began reading Bodies in Motion in earnest, beginning with the gem of a Forward by publisher and Aerostich founder Andy Goldfine. I found Thompson's book engaging, if a little unfocused and arythmic at times. The discussion also seems largely applicable only to Western, adult, male, road riders. His observations and theories, laced with a mix of science and humanity, are nothing if not interesting, however -- great fodder for either quiet contemplation, alcohol-aided campfire philosophizing, or plain ol' shouting matches. Ultimately, I'm not convinced by Thompson's arguments, which I find heavy on correlation, light on causation. It's also tough to get around the fingernails-on-chalkboard reaction I had regarding Thompson's heavy reliance on "Pop Evolutionary Psychology" (the notion that adaptation is to be found among the psychological mechanisms controlling behavior rather than among the behaviors themselves), a field that lacks support in the mainstream science. While the notion that modern people harbor a "Stone Age" mind and that much of what we do today is due to adaptive problems encountered by our hunter-gathering ancestors, is attractive on some level, it's based on the deeply flawed assumption that we can somehow know the psychology of our Stone Age ancestors.

Don't get me wrong; I highly recommend you buy this book! Face it: motorcycle books are largely of the "how to ride", "where I've ridden" or "how to fix it" varieties; this one is something fresh and a little more cerebral. I'm not surprised at all that Bodies apparently kicked around for quite a while before visionary Andy Goldfine did us all a great service by publishing it. While Bodies in Motion didn't convince me Mr. Thompson has the magic answer to why I ride, it has me thinking about why I ride, which I suspect would please him very much.

Bodies in Motion, Evolution and Experience in Motorcycling. Steven L. Thompson. 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-9819001-1-7. 417 ppg.


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