Friday, August 18, 2006

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I mentioned this book in Monday's post, and since work was slow and I didn't get much reviewing or writing done this evening (ABC Family had the Friday night block of Whose Line Is It Anyway?), I thought I could describe this book and its effects on me, since it's my favorite nonfiction book.

I first read this book in high school when a guy I knew recommended it to me; I think he was reading it for a philosophy class. If you're not familiar with this book, which originally was published in the 70's, it's about a father and his son taking a motorcycle trip across America. But that's not all. The father was a former scientist turned philosopher, and as the trip progresses, he discusses everything from the scientific method to the problems of choosing which hypotheses to test to differing viewpoints (classical people look at the world analytically, whereas romantics are more concerned with beauty--left brain vs. right brain, basically), gradually working his way into Eastern and Western philosophy. (Don't worry; the author, Robert M. Pirsig, does a good job of making this all very understandable and down-to-earth.) As part of his discussion, Pirsig reflects on his experiences teaching freshman comp and how this led to him developing a theory of Quality. He maintains that Quality, particularly in writing, cannot be defined, but we still recognize what Quality is on an unconscious level. Quality cannot be taught as such, but some of the things that give writing Quality, such as organization, can be. Quality, according to Pirsig, is very much like the Tao of the Tao Te Ching. But although the book does go on to discuss other philosophers, it brings the concepts home by relating them to everyday problems such as fixing a motorcycle. There's also gumption, the psychic fuel/attitude that keeps a person motivated to keep working on problems, and techniques to help you get out of a stuck mindset. But all of this philosophizing has caused some personal problems for Pirsig, particularly with his son, so he has to work them out on the trip. Obviously, there's too much going on in this book for me to summarize it well; you'll just have to read it for yourself.

As I said, I first read this book in high school, and it was the right book meeting the right mind at the right time. It made so much sense to me when I read it and opened up my mind to new ways of thinking. I've read it several times since then, although I can't remember the last time I read it--it's hard to justify rereading books when you have stacks of unread ones to open. I underlined many passages in the book and made comments in the margins; my copy is battered but still readable. I've always been a perfectionist, but this book made me think about Quality in a whole new way. It also encouraged me to look further by reading some Eastern philosophy myself, such as the Tao Te Ching (in translation, of course!). I'm still interested in Taoism; I have a daily book of meditations which I've gone through a couple of times. I still pursue Quality in my own way, through writing.

I gave Eugene a copy of this book while we were still in undergrad. He in return gave me the sequel: Lila, An Inquiry Into Morals. I hate to say it, but I didn't "get" this book the same way I did the first one, and it didn't move me the same way. I guess Pirsig and I crossed paths once and then moved on our own courses. But that one encounter between the pages of a book pushed me in a different direction, and for that I will always be grateful.

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