5 Questions with Margaret Guroff, author of The Mechanical Horse

mechanical horseOn Tuesday, April 17, City Lights and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition are proud to present an evening with Margaret Guroff. Guroff will celebrate her new book, The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life from University of Texas Press. Anna Gore of the SF Bicycle Coalition will present an opening statement.

Margaret answered our 5 questions. More about her, and her answers, below.

Event: Tuesday, April 17 at 7:00PM. 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133

About The Mechanical Horse: With cities across the country adding miles of bike lanes and building bike-share stations, bicycling is enjoying a new surge of popularity in America. It seems that every generation or two, Americans rediscover the freedom of movement, convenience, and relative affordability of the bicycle. The earliest two-wheeler, the draisine, arrived in Philadelphia in 1819 and astonished onlookers with the possibility of propelling themselves “like lightning.” Two centuries later, the bicycle is still the fastest way to cover ground on gridlocked city streets.

Filled with lively stories, The Mechanical Horse reveals how the bicycle transformed American life. As bicycling caught on in the nineteenth century, many of the country’s rough, rutted roads were paved for the first time, laying a foundation for the interstate highway system. Cyclists were among the first to see the possibilities of self-directed, long-distance travel, and some of them (including a fellow named Henry Ford) went on to develop the automobile. Women shed their cumbersome Victorian dresses—as well as their restricted gender roles—so they could ride. And doctors recognized that aerobic exercise actually benefits the body, which helped to modernize medicine. Margaret Guroff demonstrates that the bicycle’s story is really the story of a more mobile America—one in which physical mobility has opened wider horizons of thought and new opportunities for people in all avenues of life.

“Fascinating . . . Guroff does an admirable job reminding us of the bicycle’s lasting influence . . . [Her] book provides a colorful and helpful map of where we’ve been, and where we all might go from here.” —The Wall Street Journal

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About Margaret Guroff: Margaret Guroff is a magazine editor. She is also the editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick, an online annotation of Herman Melville’s classic novel. She teaches writing at the Johns Hopkins University.

About Anna Gore: Anne Gore is Membership Manager of the SF Bicycle Coalition. She joined the staff in August of 2012 and has been in her position since June of 2013. Before moving to San Francisco, she was an active transportation advocate in her home state of Georgia and earned her Master’s of Environmental Planning and Design from the University of Georgia. As a resident of the Inner Sunset, you might catch her commuting to work on the wiggle or biking around Golden Gate Park (often with her dog in tow) on the weekends.


City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

Margaret Guroff: My husband brought me there during our first San Francisco trip–he is a huge fan of the store from his younger days and wanted me to see it. I remember checking out the poetry selection to make sure Howard Nemerov was well represented. And we got T-shirts! The full tourist experience, I’m afraid.

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it sound like?

MG: Selections from the vast and forgotten body of music about bicycles. In the 1890s, sheet-music composers published scads of songs about scorchers (bicycle speed demons), bloomer girls (women who wore pants), and other shocking phenomena of that decade’s bicycle boom. “Daisy (Bicycle Built for Two)” is the only one people still know.

CL: What’s the first book you actually finished reading?

MG: I don’t remember! I can tell you the book I was proudest to finish reading, though: Moby-Dick. It had defeated me in high school, and I finally conquered it many years later, after I’d promised to read it with a friend. I had to look up so many words that I ended up making an online annotation of the book to help other readers get through it.

CL: If you didn’t have your current job, what might you do?

MG: Maybe professional de-clutterer? I’ve had some luck helping friends and family figure out what to jettison. It’s always so much easier when it isn’t your stuff.

CL: Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no wifi). 

Chocolate chip cookies; pinot noir; my bass guitar (I need the practice); pen and paper for making to-do lists; books I can read over and over, including Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Anagrams by Lorrie Moore; books on my current reading list, including The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown and The Money Cult by Chris Lehmann.


Please join us on Tuesday, April 17 for a celebration of Margaret Guroff’s book, The Mechanical Horse. Definitely check out Margaret’s astonishing site, Power Moby-Dick, a fully annotated version of the classic novel. Support the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition as well!

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