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Organ Grinder

Cover of Organ Grinder

Organ Grinder

A Classical Education Gone Astray
Borrow Borrow

A freewheeling essay on mortality and freedom at the intersection of ancient philosophy and biker culture

After my accident, I thought I was done with bikes. Until a few years ago—I was lying in bed having trouble sleeping when I heard a voice say to me, "Alan, get a Harley and ride to Death Valley." I didn't even like Harleys. And I didn't believe that God had called down and told me to get one. It seemed unlikely that the monotheistic God we're stuck with would endorse a brand of motorcycle—maybe the pagan gods of antiquity would. Zeus might have ridden a Harley, or Apollo a BMW; you can imagine Aphrodite on the back of Ares' Ninja, zooming around the planets with a golden thong sticking up over the back of her toga. Even that twerp Hermes on a Vespa. Those gods liked to drink, and screw, and run around like bikers, but not Yawheh—strictly black limousines and heavy security for that guy. Thou shalt not ride. Thou shalt not be free. Thou shalt pay off the debt of thy sins to eternity.

So begins one of the salty, sharp-eyed anecdotes that fill the pages of Organ Grinder, a book-length essay written by Alan Fishbone, a motorcycle-riding scholar of ancient Greek and Latin. In a series of short pieces inspired by Horatian satire, Fishbone bounces from gonzo fever-dream to philosophical treatise, investigating the conflicts between idealism and cynicism, love and sex, body and soul. One part Plato, one part Aristophanes, two parts Easy Rider, Organ Grinder is a heady cocktail of lewd wisdom—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for our own, irreverent age.

A freewheeling essay on mortality and freedom at the intersection of ancient philosophy and biker culture

After my accident, I thought I was done with bikes. Until a few years ago—I was lying in bed having trouble sleeping when I heard a voice say to me, "Alan, get a Harley and ride to Death Valley." I didn't even like Harleys. And I didn't believe that God had called down and told me to get one. It seemed unlikely that the monotheistic God we're stuck with would endorse a brand of motorcycle—maybe the pagan gods of antiquity would. Zeus might have ridden a Harley, or Apollo a BMW; you can imagine Aphrodite on the back of Ares' Ninja, zooming around the planets with a golden thong sticking up over the back of her toga. Even that twerp Hermes on a Vespa. Those gods liked to drink, and screw, and run around like bikers, but not Yawheh—strictly black limousines and heavy security for that guy. Thou shalt not ride. Thou shalt not be free. Thou shalt pay off the debt of thy sins to eternity.

So begins one of the salty, sharp-eyed anecdotes that fill the pages of Organ Grinder, a book-length essay written by Alan Fishbone, a motorcycle-riding scholar of ancient Greek and Latin. In a series of short pieces inspired by Horatian satire, Fishbone bounces from gonzo fever-dream to philosophical treatise, investigating the conflicts between idealism and cynicism, love and sex, body and soul. One part Plato, one part Aristophanes, two parts Easy Rider, Organ Grinder is a heady cocktail of lewd wisdom—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for our own, irreverent age.

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About the Author-
  • Alan Fishbone has an M.Phil. in Classics from Columbia University. He has worked as a teacher of English and aikido; as a translator of Latin, ancient Greek, and Spanish; and as a bouncer, bartender, construction worker, and professor of Classics. He lives and works in New York City.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    January 30, 2017
    In this nonlinear memoir, Fishbone, a classical scholar, translator, and sometime bouncer, merges the lyre of Ancient Greece with the roar of a Harley to fashion himself as the classic literary tough guy. The brief span of pages motors from a jeep crash in Venezuela to a cross-country motorcycle odyssey—from NYC to Death Valley—prompted by a mysterious inner voice “from beyond.” Along the way, Fishbone addresses plastic surgery, an autopsy, violent death, and sex of the extremely sweaty variety, each louche anecdote filtered through a hodgepodge of references that include Plato’s Phaedrus, Easy Rider, the skepticism of Diogenes, and a YouTube video of a chimpanzee molesting a frog. Fishbone moderates his highfalutin asides with earthy language and subject matter (bikes, women, booze). Frequent philosophical asides show impressive historical range but rarely surpass stoner profundity, and Fishbone displays more than a smidge of self-aggrandizing machismo in his detailed exegesis of a woman getting off as she clings to him on a bike, or his recounting of the number of times he has looked death in the eye (Fishbone includes the sentence: “It’s nothing but luck that I’m still here”). Yet to reduce Fishbone to a chest-thumping intellectual gorilla would shortchange the real pleasures of his bold yawp.

  • Kirkus

    February 15, 2017
    A book-length essay connecting the profane and the profound, as a biker with a master's degree in classics (and a translator of ancient Greek and Latin) contemplates a life not always well spent.Though categorized as an essay, the book has two parts and chapters within them. The first part is mostly about the all-American concept of freedom, as exemplified in Easy Rider. Toward the end of this part, Fishbone relates the story of his attending an autopsy after earlier chapters showed how easily he and his friends could have been the subjects of one. "I felt a strange detachment which I'm not sure ever really left me," he writes of the experience, described in vivisectionist's detail. "I couldn't get the idea out of my head that we were all just bags of guts, dragging around in the air." In the second part of the book, Fishbone is a little less descriptive and experiential and more philosophical. It begins with the voices the author has heard, ones that may or may not be God's, but which he is certain are not his own interior voice. He had been reluctant to resume motorcycling after a drunken accident that might have--perhaps should have--killed him. Until that voice says, "Alan, get a Harley and drive to Death Valley." Which he did, even though Death Valley is way across the country from the upper Midwest and he's never bought into the cult of Harley. The trip turns into a meditation on the Platonic conception of the soul, as the author weighs scientific evidence that there's no such thing as the soul against spiritual certainty that there is. "It takes a soul to believe in the soul," he writes. A couple of final chapters on animal instincts and a birth bring the meditation full circle. A slim book that will resonate with the reader's inner biker/philosopher.

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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Organ Grinder
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A Classical Education Gone Astray
Alan Fishbone
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