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June's Literary Gem: Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

“We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went, and sorry it’s all gone.”

In 1974, Robert Pirsig published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Part fiction, part memoir, and part philosophical meandering, this literary gem uses the metaphor of motorcycle maintenance to explore the philosophical concept of “quality” while the narrator road-trips with his young son and a couple of friends on motorcycles. The title itself is a bit of a misnomer since it’s neither about Zen nor the actual mechanics of motorcycle maintenance, and I imagine this is probably one of the reasons it was rejected by publishers 121 times before a publisher rolled the dice. It is still the best-selling philosophy book of all time.

“Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don't know what it is. But that's self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There's nothing to talk about. But if you can't say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.”

I have loved this book since I first read it sometime during college (it wasn’t for a class, just a random read), although I couldn’t say at the time what it was that I loved so much about it. I think it was because it was so completely different from other books I read. Part of its charm was the difficulty of categorization. I’ve always loved works that transcend genre, the literary equivalent of social butterflies. This particular work would be aptly shelved in the philosophy section as much as it could in the Metaphysical section alongside the allegories of Paulo Coehlo. It could also fit in the generalized autobiography/biography/memoir category (except that Pirsig admits that though it reads like a memoir, it is a fictionalized account. Arguably, it could even fit in the education section for its Chatauquas (like collegiate lectures) about various topics. Only a careless book shelver would place a copy in either motorcycle maintenance or Zen.

Beyond the philosophical meanderings and geographic meanderings on winding mountain roads on a motorcycle, what I find the most fascinating in this story (as in most stories) is the transformation of the narrator. He refers to himself from the past as Phaedrus (a nod to Plato), and distances himself from the person he used to be. A professor of writing at a state college, he obsesses over the qualities of quality. What makes good writing? This isn’t just a philosophical meandering about the subjective nature of what makes writing (or any other art) good, but it spirals into an obsessive madness that leads him to abandon his career and submit to electroconvulsive therapy. For as much as he strives to separate himself from Phaedrus, he comes to accept that he, the narrator, is Phaedrus, and that this past version of himself is part of himself.

This exploration of self and educational/philosophical topics from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of my inspirations in Magnolia in November. I don’t just write about Maggie and her medical and educational journey. I also explore my own transformations on numerous levels. I explore the idea that burying past traumas doesn’t erase them, no more than ignoring the previous versions or stages of oneself. The past, whether we want to or not, impacts our present because all of our experiences, whether addressed or ignored, impact the people we become. In the narrator’s case, as he meanders through the Badlands and beyond, the long meditative hours on the motorcycle become an opportunity to reflect and through those reflections, he eventually makes peace with his younger self.

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”


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