90 second book review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

An oldie but a goodie this week.  This was another one that was on my “to read” list that made it’s way on to “to buy” list as a result of a quarterly trip to Half Price Books and then on to my “reading now” list as I was looking at my stack before a recent trip to Germany.  It was a timely selection.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) was written by Robert Pirsig in 1974 and is considered by many to be a modern classic of philosophy.  It’s a combination travel log and philosophical treatise all wrapped into one.  This was actually my second time through the book, the first more than 20 years ago when I was in high school.  I can’t say I got much out of it then.  I don’t think I had enough miles on the speedo yet to really understand what the author was getting at, nor did I understand the argument he was trying to make against one of the classical foundations of western thought: rationality.
To be clear, I am not sure I accept all of the ideas that Pirsig presents, but I do find them all worth entertaining in an Aristotelian fashion (which would probably drive the author nuts).  For example, at one point the main character (a never named first person narrator whom everyone presumes, correctly I think, to in fact be Pirsig) claims that in the battle between Socrates and later Aristotle and the Sophists, it was actually the Sophists who had things right.  That is interesting, but is going to be hard for me to accept.
The central theme of ZAMM is what the author / narrator calls Quality.  The whole book in fact is an attempt to explain what Quality is, where it comes from and where it fits in the hierarchy of reality.  It’s in attempting to define Quality that the Zen in the title is introduced when Pirsig invites the reader to look beyond subject vs. object duality and realize that both the classic (i.e. functional) and romantic (i.e. holistic) view of reality aren’t really separate, and don’t really oppose each other.  In reality they are, Pirsig claims, inseparable and its only rationality that divides them.
It’s not all highly theoretical philosophy – there is plenty of practical advice to go around.  Early on there is a detailed description of how a chain tightener works on a motorcycle, although to be honest I am not sure how many modern motorcycles have manual chain tension adjusters anymore.  I crashed the motorcycle I had (or in a subject / object view, I was crashed into by another careless driver) before I had need or chance to find out.
Perhaps a little bit more universally practical, Chapter 25 is loaded with some very practical advice about so called “gumption traps” and how to avoid them:

As far as I can see there are two main types of gumption traps.  The first is those in which you are thrown off the Quality track by conditions that arise from external circumstances and I call these “setbacks.”  The second type is traps in which you are thrown off the Quality track by conditions which are within yourself.  These I don’t have any generic name for -“hang ups,” I suppose.”

From there the rest of the chapter goes into techniques for recognizing you are caught in one of those gumption traps and approaches to get out of them as well as to avoid them in the first place.  In some ways the advice reminds me quite a bit of the stoic ideas about circle of control/influence vs. circle of concern.  Perhaps another sign that Buddhism (kissing cousin of Zen) and Stoicism are brothers by another mother.
In what is perhaps a case of confirmation bias in my book selection or what could be just accidental syntoptical reading, I do see some common themes emerging from the philosophy, psychology and mathematics books I have been reading.  In many passages throughout ZAMM, Pirsig gets pretty close to the idea of a strange loop that Hofstadter talks about in Godel, Escher and Bach (a book I need to pick up again and finish…) and as I already mentioned, a number of the Zen (Buddhist) concepts are extremely similar to the stoic ideas in books like The Obstacle is the Way.  There is even a thematic connection to the book I picked up after ZAMM (and just finished), The Righteous Mind by Haidt (review coming soon).
Overall I found ZAMM to be extremely enjoyable and well worth reading.  As I mentioned, I took it with me on a trip to and from Germany and got so into it, I read half of it on the plane ride over and half on the ways back, still managing to sleep a little both ways.  Sometimes you find books and sometimes books find you.  This is one that found me in the right place at the right time…at least the second time around.







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