By: Robert M. Pirsig
Sequel: Lila: An Inquiry into Morals
The first important consideration to realize when reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: this book is a work of philosophical fiction.
It’s not supposed to be an action-packed thriller. It’s not supposed to be a romance, or an adventure story, or a work of science fiction, or whatever else you typically expect from the novels on your bookshelf.
It’s a narrative, yes, but it’s primary concern is philosophy; the plot is all but secondary. Pirsig himself even acknowledges this in Chapter 12.
I hated this at first. I hated the novel because I hated this.
It goes on for chapters like this:
Logic presumes a separation of subject from object; therefore logic is not final wisdom. The illusion of separation of subject from object is best removed by the elimination of physical activity, mental activity and emotional activity. There are many disciplines for this. One of the most important is the Sanskrit dhyana, mispronounced in Chinese as “Chan” and again mispronounced in Japanese as “Zen.”
But then I realized Pirsig’s intentions fit exactly what he was doing, and I hated it a little less.
(Also, let me be the first to tell you that the end of this book is a drastic improvement upon the beginning. If you can make it to the end, you’ll probably find that you’re enjoying it.)
My first issue with Pirsig was the arrogant stance from which he wrote. I realize now that a lot of that is just philosophical mumbo-jumbo, but I still find him to be an arrogant writer. He analyzes everyone around him from a place of “more educated,” “more enlightened,” “more self-aware.” I disregarded a lot of what he had to say about humans and humanity because of it.
My second issue is his obsession with dualities, dichotomies, binaries, whatever you want to call them. Everything is either this or that, or some mixture of the two. Or else it’s Pirsig himself breaking through binaries and uncovering truths that the rest of humanity is blind to. Either a binary serves him and he sticks to it religiously (like the difference in classical and romantic understanding), or it contradicts him and he proves its fallacy (like the question of quality as subjective or objective). It became a little self-serving.
But there were some high points for me in this book.
Confession: I love insanity. Not that I love that people are insane, or go through insane circumstances, or deal with the repercussions of insanity. But insanity is one of my favorite topics to read about. It’s fascinating.
And this book is all about insanity, truly.
It deals in large part with Pirsig’s own struggles with insanity and his subsequent electric shock therapy. The storyline there is so intriguing.
And I also really related to Pirsig’s opinions on education. As a past professor, he’s chock full of these opinions. And, for the most part, I greatly agree with him. He’s got a liberal viewpoint in a very scientific world. He’s got a lot to teach about, well, teaching.
But, overwhelmingly, I just found that this book is dense and arrogant and not balanced enough between narrative and philosophy.
But it’s a best seller, and it’s still widely taught and read and enjoyed.
So I could be wrong.
If you liked Pirsig’s book, try these:
(for themes of insanity)
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
(for more by Pirsig)
Lila by Robert M. Pirsig
(for philosophical fiction)
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
(for semi-modern philosophy)
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Woza Albert! by Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema, and Barney Simon