Friday, October 13, 2006

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M Pirsig

I wasn't planning to read this book; it was just a random one of Ben's I grabbed on the way out one morning, and I didn't really know what to expect. I'd heard of it, obviously, but knew nothing more than the title, which wasn't promising - I don't have a motorcycle to maintain; Zen (from a Westerner) implies some new-age hippy claptrap, and the overall impression is that it's going to be some self-help nonsense like Chicken Soup for the Soul. The back-cover blurbs said helpful things like "A book of profound importance" - yeah, thanks. Worse, a quick skim through reveals horribly dated language like "square" and "groovy" - yikes! With all these misgivings, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed it immensely.


But but but, what's it actually about? Well, it's many things, but the skeleton of the book is a road trip taken by Pirsig and his 11-year-old son Chris, from Minnesota to the west coast. The narrative has the chatty and accessible feel of a diary, and he gradually begins to introduce his philosophy in ways that relate to the events at hand - for example, his own attitude to bike repair compared to his friend John's, which exposes two opposing modes of thought, the arty versus the technical. Pirsig treats the story as what he calls a "Chautauqua," which has a rather obscure meaning but is essentially a sort of friendly lecture - it succeeds in gradually introducing quite complicated concepts without the reader losing interest or feeling patronised.


An added dimension to all this comes from the backstory of Pirsig's mental illness, and the character of "Phaedrus". This is the name he gives to his previous personality, which was excised by electro-shock therapy after a mental breakdown. He has few memories of his life before the breakdown, and has had to piece together a picture of his life from conversations with his old friends and colleagues, and from notes and papers he wrote at the time. The journey westwards takes him through his old haunts, which helps to stir his memory, and his philosophical discussions also take him over ground covered by Phaedrus, whose obsession with a particular concept is what drove him to insanity in the first place. Both the philosophy and the background are very skilfully unveiled, and provide a nice counterpart to the journey and Pirsig's uncertain relationship with his son.


I have a tendency to write philosophy off as a load of irrelevant waffle, but Pirsig's down-to-earth manner makes this an excellent introduction to the subject - it even explains why philosophy's important. I can't really comment on Pirsig's (or Phaedrus's) own philosophical views, because I don't care enough to form an opinion one way or another, but it's all presented in an accessible and common-sense fashion that substantially raises my opinion of the subject. I'm not sure I'd describe this revelation as "profoundly important," but it's a good read nonetheless.


8/10

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