Sunday, February 9, 2014

zen and mortorcycles

I've been hearing about this book since not long after it was written, its seems. My wife read this in her first year of college and she found a used copy for me somewhere and its been sitting around for another year or so waiting for me to read it. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a great title for a book, and I'm sure its what helped it to top the charts when it came out, and lends it staying power after all these years. Its still in print, and I would guess that its still being taught in college classes today.

ZAMM is a complex book I've been reading it since december but fascinating nonetheless. Its three stories really, woven together. Outwardly, its the story of a cross country motorcycle trip of a father and his young son,* but along the way, the father narrates a modern take on Zen philosophy from his own personal experience, and how it ties into, and is tied up with western philosophy. His own personal experience is his history, and how working through a personal philosophy drove him mad. The narrator also peppers his monologues, and occasionally his conversations with others, with motorcycle maintenance tips, which aren't very useful or complete, if truth be told, but they aren't meant to be. The author uses maintenance of the bike as allegory for the self. When he says you can't just ride and ride the cycle until it breaks down and then call for help, you need to understand the cycle; be responsible for it, maintain it as you go along as a matter of course, he's talking about ourselves.

Allegory is the go-to tool in the entire book, because the motorcycle trip itself is an allegory of the narrator's trip through life, his slip into madness, and his recovery. It can also be seen as a description of his relationship with his son, as well as the struggle to explain the complex philosophy he is building for his readers along the way. By the end, its clear that narrator himself could use a road map, and may have indeed, done himself some good by working through this tortured time of his life; he's made himself an example for us, to show us what self examination and self-maintenance can do for us.

Very interesting, but slow and methodical. The narrator says at the outset that the process wasn't going to be either simple or quick, and it wasn't. For as fascinating as it was, this book was a slog. After taking all of January and a little of February to get through this one, I don't think I'll be matching my personal best of 49 books in 2013.

Robert Pirsig has written a follow up, but I don't think many read it. The edition of ZAMM I read is the 25th anniversary edition, which includes a new forward by the author, as well as an afterword he penned at the 10 year mark, along with a short interview with him. Its interesting to see how his views of the book evolved over time.

* Pirsig really did take a cross country trip on his bike with his son Chris, and their friends John and Sylvia. He talks about how he decided to use the trip as a structure to hang his story on, well after he began to write it. The link I put in there leads to one of a few photographs from that trip you can find on the net.

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