Friday, 7 February 2014

Book Review: Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

This is a photograph of author and philosopher...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In conference presentations, when it comes to discussing the changes being wrought by the Internet in areas such as publishing, I am fond of referring to the concept of quality. I almost invariably include a picture of the cover of Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, because the book itself centres around the complexity, even impossibility, of defining Quality.

The argument I am making goes something like this: arguing that the quality of a book is inherent in its being something you curl up on a sofa and read is mad. You can curl up on a sofa and read a Kindle, too. The smell of a book is not the quality of it, either. The form 'book' is merely a receptacle for the words; changing the receptacle does not change the quality of the words, merely the quality of experience in consuming those words. If we look at the qualities of the receptacle: stable text, easily readable, accessible and easy to store, it's quite clear that the ebook reader is vastly superior to the booky book. It's like a Sumerian arguing for the rich smell of clay instead of that nasty papyrus stuff. It doesn't matter. Its.about.the.words.

Quality becomes irrelevant where technology improves access. See?

In fact, we are willing to accept lower quality receptacles where we can gain easier access to content. Look at the iPod, which is vastly inferior to a CD, but which we prefer because we have instant access to pretty much all the music we could ever want. And so the Kindle, which made it possible for me to wake up the other day, decide I had been referring to a book I hadn't read myself since the late 1970s and so conclude I wanted to read it now. Thanks to the Kindle, instead of having to comb bookshops or place special orders for it, I had the book in my hands in seconds flat.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about a man who has another man inside him, embarking on a road trip with his son Chris and two friends (John and Sylvia). The author is never named, but the man inside him, his former self, is called Phaedrus. Phaedrus was a lecturer at a university in Bozeman, Montana who went insane and was treated with electroshock therapy, erasing his troubled and destructive personality. Phaedrus reappears in the protagonist as the road trip takes them back to Bozeman, the protagonist drawn back to the university, his past and his emergent past self. The book is subtitled 'An enquiry into values' and it weaves the story of the road trip, Phaedrus' story of intellectual angst turned gradually inward into burgeoning insanity and the protagonist's own musings and observations on life, philosophy and, of course, motorcycle maintenance.

The narrative is constructed with a light hand, even though the book can nosedive deeply into the syrupy quasi-murk of philosophy at times. You can choose to skip here or to slow down and get to grips with Pirsig's forays into analytical thought - some of which are light and some of which become almost impenetrably heavy. At times my 'so what' gland kicked in, so I found myself both skipping and slowing, depending on my mood, my patience and the passage.

Bits of the book came back to me as I read, I was surprised to find my memory of certain key sections was inaccurate - over the years I had modified the tale in my recollection. Sort of Chinese Whispers for one. In one section, a student finds it impossible to write an essay about Bozeman, then a street in Bozeman and so Phaedrus has her write about the front of the town hall by breaking it down into bricks, starting with the top left hand brick. She dashes off thousands of words without a hitch. I remembered that one wrong, for instance.

But my memory of Pirsig's arguments about the indefinability of Quality were clear. And they remain a fascinating element of a book that is rarely less than enthralling. Somehow it manages - in the main - not only to be readable, but enjoyable and thought provoking too. That's a pretty heady mixture of qualities in itself - a mix that Pirsig generally pulls off deftly. It's also a book that polarises readers rather neatly - I've met people who think it's all tedious, pretentious twaddle wrapped in a thin veneer of everyman philosophising.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was apparently rejected by over 120 publishers, going on to become a major bestseller (over 5 million copies). In its time, it was one of those books you simply had to have on the bookshelf, dahling. And you always suspected some people just cracked the spine before adding it to the collection in a prominent place. It's one of those books.

It's perhaps no surprise to learn that Pirsig studied at Bozeman and struggled with mental illness, himself undergoing electro-convulsive therapy. He also had a son called Chris - the book turns out to be deeply autobiographical and I hadn't appreciated that before sitting down to write this review. Love it or hate it, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance stands as a remarkable work. And yes, I would recommend reading it.
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1 comment:

Dave said...

I read it years ago, but didn't find it a patch on Haynes.

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