I just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. You've probably heard of this book. Maybe you've read it. If you've read it, you probably read it a long time ago. It came out in 1974. I remember when I was a kid in Pennsylvania in the 70's that my parents had the book. Lots of people had the book then. It was a bestseller. So, when I saw it referenced recently in another article or book, I thought, "What the hell is that book?" Given the title, and it's mid-1970's popularly, I was expecting it to be something of a feel-good, post-hippy, folksy exploration of life and motorcycles. This is not what the book is. Like, at all.
I haven't read anybody else writing about the book since I finished it this morning. So, what I'm going to say here is just me. But I think that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is, surprisingly, the most important book I can think of having been written in the last 50 years. I mean, I can't think of a more important book off the top of my head. What's an important book? Well, to me, it's a book that influences the way people think about the world in a profound way... So I think of 1984, Brave New World, Catch-22, Atlas Shrugged, Foundation, The Stranger, Catcher in the Rye, books like that. These are books from the 20th Century, but they're from the first or middle part of the 20th Century, not from the past 50 years. What else is an important book from the past 50 years? White Noise, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yeah, well, I think that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is more important those those three.
And of course, you're about to say, Lebowski-like, "Well, that's just, like, your opinion, Man." And it is. But the central idea of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an exploration of QUALITY itself. What is quality, anyway? How do we know what is good and what is bad? What tools do we have to measure this? Is quality objective or subjective? And the answer is, of course, yes. It's both and neither. Quality exists in the relationship between subject and object. The protagonist of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is basically peeling this onion, along with a number of other onions, through the entire book, diving deeper and deeper into the very foundations of western philosophy and society, while also exploring, in juxtaposition and as metaphors, his own sanity, his own history, motorcycle maintenance, his relationship with his son, and a cross-country motorcycle trip that is both a journey into and out of the wild, and a journey backward and then forward in time. It's really awesome in its construction, and how each of these themes bounce off the others and illuminate the central theme... which becomes, as it is clarified, the fact that western society, from the Greeks on down, has held the "truth" as more important than the "good." That is, what is measurable and objective can be validated as "true," but what is "good" comes before measurement, and so can't be validated, and must just be known.
I don't like the name of the book, as I think it sounds like a book you buy in an airport for a breezy read on the flight to Miami. This is a dense book. You can't read it fast. It has to sink in. Plus, there's really not all that much about "zen" in this book. Yes, the narrator spent some time bouncing around Asia, but he admits he was more of a tourist than a true pilgrim, in a great passage in which he abandons climbing a holy mountain. But this book is an exploration of western, rather than eastern, thought. It could be said that at a certain point, once the onion is peeled all the way back past Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, back to the Sophists, that in a certain way that's where East meets West, and everything is sort of zen. But that still doesn't make it a good title for the book.
I think there's a lot in this book, in particular, that can speak to us in this particular moment in our fractured national discourse, when lies are the order of the day, and everything seems to be misrepresented to achieve some agenda that isn't fully grasped or known. Pirsig would say, look for quality. And that maybe "the good" needs to be reinstated to be above "the true," in an era where we can't really tell anymore what's true anyway. In some ways, I think that the election of Trump is a rejection of "the true" on behalf of those voters who supported him. They see neoliberal elitism as presenting "truth" but it's a truth that missing something, often a place for those who feel left out of the global economy. But good still exists, and quality is still important (even in Trump, in particular sense, can stand for either of these values).
READ THIS BOOK! And let me know if you want to have a book club or anything about it. Or if you want to argue with me and say that some other book in the last 50 years is even more important than this one. But first, in order to do that, you have to read this book. And not, like, just have read it in 1977. Read it now, in the age of Trump, and tell me what you think.