Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig (1999)

I’m starting to write this review before I’ve finished the book. Not because I know what’s going to happen, but because I’m so desperate to start a new book.

This book attempts to combine the tale of a motorcycle trip during which father and son attempt to bond, and a analysis and explanation of the authors philosophical beliefs. Both parts are interesting, and the use of motorcycle maintenance (or other practical examples) in illustrating abstract philosophical beliefs is certainly successful.

Thus far, however, something isn’t quite adding up for me. The story is tempered by the recounting of the life of Phaedrus, a ghostly character whose life is somehow tied up with that of the narrator. It is through the narration of Phaedrus’ beliefs that the philosophical analysis is undertaken, and here things start to fall down. Perhaps my lack of knowledge of philosophy is a cause, as I certainly fail to place the discussions within a framework of current understanding.

At certain times, unwieldy hypothesis are explained superbly. Inductive and deductive reasoning, for example, are explained by reference to ways in which one might investigate a malfunction on a motorbike. These sections often leave me feeling intellectually richer, enlightened almost. There is no arguing with the base fact that the understanding of philosophy and philosophical analysis has the potential to add significant value to the way we lead our lives.

Other tracts are less revealing, and based on the assumption that the reader has an understanding of basic principles, using lines such as “of course”, and “as we all know”. I can think of little less alienating than these phrases to the amateur reader.

Alongside these fluctuations in understanding is the feeling that perhaps one should apply some academic rigour to the reading of this book. A few notes here and there, to be consulted between readings to ensure that each new section is not just read for enjoyment, but as part of a continuous process of development. Now, all books deliver new knowledge to the reader, but in picking up this book I didn’t want to feel like I was constantly failing an examination in understanding what the heck was going on.

The rest of the book – the narrative of the road trip – is enjoyable, but encumbered, for me at least, by a struggle to engage with the mindset of the narrator. Like Kerouac’s “On The Road”, it doesn’t seem to chime with my norms and values, and is written from a perspective which is somewhat alien to me.

So, overall, an interesting read. I was highly anticipative of this book, having been aware of its existence for many years. This, perhaps, give it a disadvantage, as i read it with expectations, with dreams, with ambition for what I wanted it to be. Yet, it is what it is. An interesting attempt to delve into philosophical analysis without resorting to essaying, an attempt to combine narrative and academia. I’m glad to have finished reading it, but glad also to have read it.

Ps – I finished this review after finishing the book, and on reflection, I am somewhat more enamoured to it now that I am somewhat removed from it.

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