Thursday, December 20, 2012

Robert Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

If you haven’t read ZAMM, how should I describe it to you? It’s a travelogue, a father-son story, a ghost story, a journey story, a series of essays about topics philosophical and practical—I could go on, but for me it’s one of the best books that I’ve ever read (now for the third or fourth time), which I consider to be a high compliment indeed. 

This novel (perhaps too limiting a designation) created quite a sensation at the time of its publication in 1974. It reached bestseller status quickly, and it frequently appeared on college bookstore shelves, where I first saw it. I never had it assigned as a text, but a political science professor I had (John S. Nelson) assigned it in classes & often posted quotes from it (on 5/8 cards outside of  his Schaeffer Hall office). I don’t recall when exactly I first read it, but it immediately struck me as a great read. 

This time I happened to see it in a bookstore during a recent trip to Delhi, and I instinctively popped for it. Unlike many books that have to look at me for an extended period before I pick them up & read them, I didn’t let this one sit long before I plunged into it. It had been long enough since I’d last read it that I found it fresh, and, coincidentally, it proved topical because I’ve been working with young lawyers on their writing skills. The narrator taught rhetoric and composition, and he discusses teaching this topic as a part of the book. Indeed, a passing comment from a colleague while teaching rhetoric gave rise to this designation of “quality”, which becomes the key concept in the book. While “Chautauquas” (entertaining talks) on topics like teaching, motorcycle maintenance, and Quality (it quickly rises to the level of a proper noun) create an interesting part of the book, we also have the story of the narrator and his son Chris continuing their trek from Minnesota to San Francisco on the narrator’s motorcycle. A great number of poignant meetings and confrontations, with persons past and present and between father and son (past and present) mark this aspect of the story. 

I’m going to stop here because as I write this I'm frustrated by the fact that I can’t really do justice to this book. It has too many things going on for me to do justice to it. I suppose that the best thing that I can say is that I’ve never forgotten this book and I hope to read it again.  

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