Thursday, March 27, 2008

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

by Robert Pirsig

I had first read this book the summer after I graduated from college while riding trains backpacking through Europe (1985). My husband (boyfriend at the time) read it that same summer while backpacking the Appalachian trail. We both loved it. And now, many many years later I just re-read it for book club and absolutely hated it although it did make for an interesting discussion. The story, to the extent that there is one, is the classic road trip. A boy and his father set out on a motorcycle for a holiday. It is gradually revealed that the relationship between the boy and his father is strained perhaps partly because the father had a mental breakdown and had been hospitalized for quite a while. The main thrust of the book however is to provide “Chautauquas” on the author’s philosophy regarding quality. It is remarkable how little I actually remembered of the book and I was expecting the philosophy, given the title, to be much more Eastern - which it was not. I had to force my self to read it by putting a book I was actually looking forward to reading on the coffee table which I would not allow myself to start until this one was finished. I did finish Zen but my husband didn’t get very far into it even though it was his book selection for book club.

While I don’t often reread books, I have never had such different reactions to the same book. Is it a book that only spoke to its specific era or generation (it was written in 1974) or does it particularly resonate with people at a certain stage of their life? A friend that is about the same age as I am commented that when we graduated from college Zen was a book that anyone who wanted themselves to be considered an intellectual had to read. I don’t remember being that pretentious but perhaps that was part of it. I suspected that it was a book of its time but while nobody at book club liked the book one person did say that a friend of his last year read it just after graduating college while hiking the Appalachian trail and loved it. All I know is that this go around I had no patience for its discussions of romantic versus classical approaches to motorcycle repair or the Greek philosophers. For those interested, a short recap of Pirsig’s philosophy be found at Wikipedia.

If the book put more focus on Eastern philosophy I may have found it more interesting. I enjoyed the story line of the father’s descent into madness and would have liked that story line to have been developed, but the entire plot seemed to be a mere afterthought. Perhaps I am just to the point in my life that I don’t want to waste time on something that I don’t find enjoyable just because others think it is important.


dilettante1890 said...

I saw a think to this on your library thing account. I was not quite as nice about the review as you are =)

Jeane said...

I have struggled my way through this book twice. It is interesting, but confusing. My husband wants to read it and he is much more into philosophy than I am, so I am curious what he will think of it (thought he is interested in Eastern philosophy, so perhaps he won't care for it either).