Sunday, January 18, 2009

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

There are few books I've read in my life that I consider important to other people. Ishmael is one of them. I thought Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was one of them. It's not. I thought Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was one of them. It's not. These are simply vaguely describing an emotion and attitude that is nailed down and exposed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

There is so much to this book that it is a great challenge to actually finish it. But damn, is it rewarding. In short, it is a philosophy lesson mixed into a narrative of a man and his son traveling cross-country on a motorcycle. The concepts touched upon are things I've thought about and killed myself over. The reasons why I couldn't let music go. The reasons I can't get a 9-5 job. The reasons why I struggle with existentialism and living in "the system." It's all laid out here, intelligently and relative to today's mindset. I simply want to touch on some of the concepts that REALLY struck me as I was reading this:

1. Classic vs Romantic Mindset: This can also be described as technical vs aesthetic, structure vs surface appeal, etc. It hammers home the argument that these are NOT separate concepts. The thing that separates the two are the "quality" of the work. If things are manufactured without care or quality, then they are perceived by the consumer as useless or disposable. However, if something is evidently made with "quality" in mind, it is appreciated. Take a homemade mug or chair or table. If something is hand crafted by someone you know personally, it's going to mean a lot more than something put together from a Target box. I think this goes for anything functional. A lot of the time, the surface aesthetic is slapped on with whatever current "style" or "fashion" is relevant, and this is often a cheap way to fake "quality." It's an interesting argument.

2. He does a lot of urban vs rural comparing. Fast people, fast cars, neon signs. I think this argument is presented best at the very end of the novel with this passage:

"The explanation, I suppose, is that the physical distance between people has nothing to do with loneliness. It's psychic distance, and in Montana and Idaho the physical distances are big but the psychic distances between people are small, and here it's reversed.
It's the primary America we're in[the west coast]. It hit the night before last in Prineville Junction and it's been with us ever since. There's this primary America of freeways and jet flights and TV and movie spectaculars. And people caught up in this primary America seem to go through huge portions of their lives without much consciousness of what's immediately around them. The media have convinced them that what's right around them is unimportant. And that's why they're lonely. You see it in their faces. First the little flicker of searching, and then when they look at you, you're just a kind of object. You don't count. You're not what they're looking for. You're not on TV.
But in the secondary America we've been through, of back roads, and Chinaman's ditches, and Appaloosa horses, and sweeping mountain ranges, and meditative thoughts, and kids with pinecones and bumblebees and open sky above us mile after mile after mile, all through that, what was real, what was around us dominated. And so there wasn't much feeling of loneliness. That's the way it must have been a hundred or two hundred years ago. Hardly any people and hardly any loneliness. I'm undoubtedly overgeneralizing, but if the proper qualifications were introduced it would be true."

3. Pirsig puts the quality back in technical work. He talks of the "peace of mind" of finishing a long a grueling technical project, such as the repair of a motorcycle. Or a theremin. Or a bicycle. Or a calculus problem. It's all the same. It's the zen feeling of inner peace, and it's related to an aesthetic that people today do not want to associate with technology. It's not the technology that is in the wrong, it's the mindset.

There is another great quote from this book in my facebook profile. I suggest reading that as well. This book has changed my life. I think it happened at a great point in my life. It fixed a haze of confusion and self-doubt and set me straight on a track of quality and motivation. It's a VERY hard read, but very rewarding. I'm extremely satisfied and kind of have a great peace of mind after reading it. Ha!

Anyway, I need some pulp for a while. That was intense.

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