Archive for July 2001

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

20 July 2001
Categories: From the armchair

coverWhen I was in sixth grade, I competed in a grade-wide spelling bee. I was a pretty damn good speller in those days. The bee ran well beyond its allotted time, mainly because after all the other kids were eliminated, it turned into a head-to-head battle of wits between myself and one other student. Her name was Laura H., and she was an untouchably perfect paradigm of beauty and intelligence. Probably every school has one. I pretty much had a crush on Laura from the first day of sixth grade, all the way through high school.

That day, they ultimately had to move us into a study room in the library because the classroom we were in was about to be filled with students returning from lunch. Just me, and Laura, and a proctor who gave us the words, back and forth, likely praying that one of us would screw up soon so she could go back to her regular day. On and on it went, and the tension in the room grew and grew.

Finally, I blew it, leaving out the “an” in “maintenance.” I knew how to spell the word; I just forgot where I was in spelling it.

When I went home and told my parents, my dad asked, “Is that Diane H.’s daughter? I guess I know why you let her win.” Turns out Laura’s parents went to college with mine, and her mother was quite the smart babe as well.

So despite its ignominious place in my personal history, maintenance is one of my favourite words, and it makes sense at some cosmic level that a book with “maintenance” in its title would eventually become one of my favourite books.

A more tangible clue that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (aka ZMM) is important to me: I have three copies of this book.

One is a hardcover, supposedly reissued for the book’s twentieth anniversary in 1994. This is my stay-at-home copy, the tome I protect so much that as I think of it I’m reminded that it’s still lacking a clear plastic cover for the dust jacket. It has the benefit of larger print, wide margins for note making (not that I have), and correction of most of the typos that appear in the paperback printing.

One is a pink-covered paperback, bought new when I was in high school. This is an unusual printing, the thirty-third by Bantam. In 1984, Pirsig wrote a new “introduction” for the tenth anniversary of the book’s first publishing. I quote “introduction” because this is how it’s described on the copyright notice page, but it’s more accurately described as an afterword, which is how it appears in the hardcover and later paperback printings. However, my copy has it as an actual introduction, preceding the story, which is really strange because it describes a catastrophic event that occurred ten years after the events of the story and which dramatically colours the story itself. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. I’m sure the author did not intend this, and so it was subsequently changed in the next printing. It makes my copy, as I said, unusual, and I rarely read this copy because of it.

The third copy I have, the one that I’ve been carrying around with me, is another pink-cover paperback. I specify the cover colour because I’ve seen printings with identical layouts except the background is yellow or green, rather than pink.cover I suspect these are early printings, just like when the sequel to ZMM, Lila, first came out in paperback, it was available in three colours. The copy of Lila I have is purple, but I doubt you could buy it today in anything other than green; likewise, good luck these days finding a paperback ZMM that isn’t Pepto-Bismol pink.

Anyway, this copy of ZMM has been around the block a few times. It’s not even mine. It was given to me in college by a friend who had an extra copy. I’m not sure why I took it, since I already had one of my own. Perhaps it was so that my girlfriend at the time could read it (like most people, she didn’t have privileges to my library), and when we later broke up and I moved out, the book came along with me. (As far as I know, she never read it.) So I have this copy that was battered when I got it, that’s dog-eared and losing a few pages, that I don’t mind carrying in a back pocket or reading in a light rain, that’s something of a permanent loaner, that I’ll gladly give to anyone who wants to read this wonderful book, that has a name written on the flyleaf of someone I’ve never met, that has occasional, tiny, cryptic remarks written in ink in the margins.

Some of these remarks are mere checkmarks alongside passages someone thought particularly noteworthy, but a few make much less sense. One that sticks out at me appears at the beginning of Chapter 24:

I remember the dream again and the words “I’ll see you at the bottom of the ocean” and wonder about them. But pines and sunlight are stronger than any dream and the wondering goes away. Good old reality.

At this point, the last sentence has been underlined, followed by a single word: “Ha.” This may be the easy bit to fathom. The friend that gave me this copy, like nearly everyone in my social circle in those days, was a cognoscente of psychedelics. Laughing at the notion of “good old reality” would be par for the course. The book continues:

I get out of the sleeping bag. It’s cold and I get dressed quickly. Chris is asleep. I walk around him, climb over a fallen treetrunk and walk up the logging road. To warm myself I speed up to a jog and move up the road briskly. Good, good, good, good, good. The word keeps time with the jogging…

The line beginning with “briskly” and containing the repeated word “good” has an arrow pointing to it with the words “Ahh! He knows.” Knows what? Knows that jogging is good? Knows that reality is good? Knows the true meaning of his dream? Knows that his past is welling up inside of him and it’s only a matter of time before it bursts out again? If so, what in this paragraph gives that idea?

I guess the reason I’m going into all this is because ZMM is more than a book to me, it’s an event filled with baggage. When I first read it, in high school, I was floored by it and it quite firmly adjusted my idea of reality. As I re-read it now I see those passages that I took deeply to heart and can see how much of my current belief system relies on them. There’s more baggage, of course, in the cover that stares me in the face from my desk, the one that says ZMM is “one of the most profoundly important bestsellers of our time.” (All in caps.) Along with the words “Electrifying.” “Fabulous.” “Extraordinary.” And there’s the baggage of those that have read this copy before me, as illustrated above, and all those who have read the book over the years. I mean, has a total of 247 customer reviews!

Sadly, one of those reviews, and one that appears on the main book page and not buried within the subsequent 25 pages of reviews, keeps sticking in my mind. “A reader from Topeka, KA” [sic, not the proper abbreviation for Kansas] calls it an “oddball book” and says he/she couldn’t get past page 248. Well, fuck you, Topeka. The quality of this or any other book notwithstanding, I firmly believe that if you can’t finish the book you don’t have the right to criticize it in print. It’s obvious that Topeka didn’t “get” ZMM, if for no other reason that he/she insists on calling it a “novel,” which implies fiction, which ZMM is not. I think it’s most particularly ironic that page 248 is exactly one page before Pirsig goes into the discussion of “stuckness.”

(Okay, so maybe I’m defensive. And maybe 247 isn’t all that many reviews… for example, The Celestine Prophesy has 571. Of course, it’s a helluva lot easier to grasp than ZMM.)

But all this baggage makes me much more critical of the book than I ever have been before. It’s kind of like putting a good rock-and-roll album on in the car while driving with your mother. How many times have I heard mine complain about the “noise,” when all I could hear was jamming, if shrieking, electric guitar? (Although I never could adequately defend my Emerson, Lake & Palmer phase, and perhaps still can’t.) Riding on the train, I actually found myself embarrassed to be reading ZMM. After finishing, I noticed another guy on the train reading it, and my first thought was, “you poor bastard.” Why do I feel this way? ZMM is a great book! Sure, it’s not quite as cerebral as reading Critique of Pure Reason. And sometimes Pirsig sounds painfully full of himself, as if he thinks the ideas he’s espousing are the most earth-shattering concepts ever.

Then again, maybe it’s just a case of the old saw, “familiarity breeds contempt.” You hear a radical new idea for the first time, and you can’t fathom it. Hear it again, and it begins to make sense. Again, and you can start to assimilate it. Hear it for the tenth time, and it’s old news.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not old news. It’s a fresh look at the fundamental philosophical biases that western culture has considered a given since the days of Aristotle, and a means to move beyond them. It’s as timely and important today as it was 25 years ago. Get some gumption, and give it a read.