Author: Robert M Pirsig
Details: (c) 1974 Robert M Pirsig; Pub Vintage 1989; ISBN 0-09-978640-0
Verdict: Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance has some interesting ideas, but is rather dry.
Reasons for reading it: wychwood was enthusing about it lots, and loreid chimed in, and then it came up in conversation several times.
How it came into my hands: The nice friendly library that lives at the bottom of my drive. I somehow managed to convince myself using the electronic catalogue that they didn't have it, but when I went in to ask about ordering it by ILL, it turned out they had it after all. I love friendly helpful librarians, I do.
I got the impression that Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance has a novel trapped somewhere inside it, trying to get out. The development of the narrator's relationship with Chris, the way the back story about Phaedrus is gradually revealed, the exploration of a struggle with madness, all these sorts of things are very interesting and evoked with a real intensity. But they're rather cluttered out by the philosophical sermon that comprises most of the book. The nearest comparison I can think of is Sophie's World, though ZatAoMM is more explicit about its biases and isn't pretending to be providing a neutral overview of the history of philosophy.
The sermon itself isn't at all terrible. It's certainly more readable than a lot of philosophy, and less cringey than a lot of popular philosophy. Probably a lot of my problem with it is that I don't quite have the patience for a novel-length philosophical exposition, and I did find it slow going.
Some of the advice for right living parts caught my attention; the more directly practical the suggestions, the more I appreciated them. And the concept of Quality does seem like a useful philosophical tool in some ways, but IMO Pirsig took this powerful idea too far. For example, the point that you can't make Quality things by taking shoddy, ill-made things and prettifying them is very powerfully made; the stuff about Quality being the source of everything just seems like irrelevant mysticism. Even if it's in some sense true, I'm inclined to feel, so what? What are the practical consequences? I'm also suspicious of the parts that seem to imply that humans are somehow magically in touch with this mystical force, if they can only learn the tricks needed to access it.
What I knew of ZatAoMM by reputation led me to think it was going to be one of those awful hippy things about how Eastern wisdom is more pure than corrupt decadent Western intellectual values, man. And it certainly isn't that; in fact, it opens with a fairly controlled rant against that kind of attitude. It certainly does have some interesting points, and it's actually surprisingly hard to summarize its arguments in an LJ post. It's worth reading for some of the new perspectives it provides, although taken at face value it doesn't entirely work for me as a system of thought. (I also have a soft spot for Plato, so I bristled a bit at the way Phaedrus treats him.)
greengolux made a magnificent post on Subjectivity and evaluating literature while I was reading ZatAoMM. Her post and the really excellent discussion that it generated seem to fit quite well into the sort of head space that the best parts of the book evoked for me (and are worth reading in their own right).