Sunday, June 20, 2010

Recently Read: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

#22 of 2010: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

After venturing into the world of romance with our inaugural round of book exchanges, I was happy to see that Matt had selected a somewhat more normal book for me to read in the second round. We had no theme in the first round, which made it sort of hard to pick out books for each other, so this round we kind of ended up picking books we had already read and giving them to each other. I received something that I had heard of from a couple of people but never read myself: Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I literally went into this book knowing nothing about it - even whether it was fiction or not. It turns out that the story is mostly true, and based on events that occurred in the author's life. We follow him and his young son (and a couple friends, initially) on a motorcycle trip across the country while he works through a philosophical arguement in his head. Most of the book is spent focusing on philosophy, with occasional connections made to events occurring during the trip.

I can honestly say I enjoyed this book in the beginning. The philosophy focused mainly on the reconciliation between the natural world and the world of technology, which are often seen as opposing forces in the world. Pirsig says they're really are just two sides of the same coin, and I think there's some merit to his ideas. The events of the trip actually reflected the philosophical arguments that he was making, and it was interesting to see the opposing views of his friends as they journeyed together. There were also some semi-foreboding hints at something dark in the author's past that he was still working through.

When the author's friends parted ways and left him and his son to complete the trip alone, I thought the book just sort of fell apart. My problems with it can be boiled down to two things:

1. If an author has to tell the reader how important and revolutionary his ideas are, they probably weren't that important and revolutionary to begin with.

In the second part of the book, there's nobody for the author to debate with, and no more relevant motorcycle metaphors. Instead, he just delves into his past and starts talking about his philosophical ideas - particularly the importance of Quality as the force behind the entire physical universe. I'd be okay with this, except that he clearly believes that he's done something revolutionary and isn't afraid to tell you how revolutionary it is. Just like I'm wary of people who tell me how smart they are, I'm wary of authors who tell you how important their ideas are. If you have something truly important to say, it should be self-evident.

I didn't share Prisig's enthusiasm for "Quality," and had a hard time seeing it as the thing from which all matter and ideas in the universe arise. Reframing it as "goodness" or "God" or a force along those lines helped me understand a little more about what he trying to say, but I didn't quite see these ideas overthrowing thousands of years of Eastern and Western philosophy.

2. If you're an author and you want to lecture at me, write a nonfiction book. If you want to tell a story, write fiction.

For about 150-200 pages, I felt as if I was being lectured at by a particularly self-absorbed professor. The narrative of the latter half of the book pretty much disintigrates, leaving nothing but pages and pages of semi-stream-of-consciousness philosophy. This is occasionally broken up by a couple paragraphs or a sentence about the motorcycle trip, but it never illuminates the philosophy even remotely. At worst, it's just the author or his son being emo and eating at restaurants. Normally I wouldn't mind straight philosophy, but I feel as if I was lied to at the beginning of the book. I wanted the journey to tie in with the philosophy more than it did. If you're going to use one to illuminate the other, then stick with it through the whole book.

One other minor point that I had a hard time dealing with was the relationship between the author and his son. The author is clearly not the best father, and is often sarcastic and dismissive of his son. He largely ignores him so that he can indulge himself in his ideas, and the son even points this out a few times, only to be promptly written off by his father. Matt remarked that it's almost impossible to carry on a conversation while riding a motorcycle, so I'll grant the author that much. However, there's a significant portion of the story in which the two are hiking up a mountain and the author behaves the same way. I felt genuinely bad for this kid. While the author continually ponders why his son is sullen and emotional for most of the trip (even going so far as to suggest it's mental illness), it seemed crystal clear to me. The end of the book made me feel somewhat better about this, as the author and his son have a "come to Jesus" moment, but that couldn't completely erase the feelings I'd had for the last 300-some pages.

I have a feeling that I'd like this book more if I were to read it again, knowing how it's structured and how everything eventually turns out. I can appreciate it a little more in retrospect, and am willing to give the author's ideas a little more credence than I did when I was reading them. While it's hard to pick them out all the time, I thought that there were some good ideas buried in the middle portion of the book. The sections on the unification of the natural and man-made worlds and the application of Quality to everyday life really stood out to me and seemed relevant. I just wish they hadn't been so obscured by the author's ego and the unevenness of the narrative.

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