Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into ValuesZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best book I have ever read.

Every once in a while a book comes along that takes all the thoughts you’ve had milling around in your brain for years but have been unable to express, and puts them into words. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of those books for me. I find myself connecting with Pirsig’s thought processes on an almost visceral level: the neverending, almost obsessive search for the Quality that underlies daily experience; dismay at the extent to which the world has abandoned the Good in the interests of pursuing the Reasonable; frustration with the orthodoxy outside of which one risks being labeled a fool or a lunatic. Pirsig’s words resonate in me with surprising clarity, they strike a chord deep inside my soul (as they have done with countless others since their first publication in 1974). They help me to understand who I am and where I’m trying to go. Which is…right here…

At the heart of his book lies the quest to overcome the duality that has become so entrenched in the Western mind that we no longer accept any other angle of perception. Unless we overcome the cognitive divide that separates us as individuals one from another, we will never truly understand this world, this reality, that we inhabit.

“What guarantees the objectivity of the world in which we live is that this world is common to us with other thinking beings. Through the communications that we have with other men we receive from them ready-made harmonious reasonings. We know that these reasonings do not come from us and at the same time we recognize in them, because of their harmony, the work of reasonable beings like ourselves. And as these reasonings appear to fit the world of our sensations, we think we may infer that these reasonable beings have seen the same thing as we; thus it is that we know we haven’t been dreaming. It is this harmony, this quality if you will, that is the sole basis for the only reality we can ever know” (p. 343).

The only real objectivity, then, is reached by way of multiple subjectivities. We need each other to be able to fathom this world we live in. What is more, we need each other in order truly to understand ourselves. Quality, the centerpiece of Pirsig’s book, is the source of both subject and object, located in the intersection between the two, without which neither can truly, substantively exist. We learn ourselves through interaction with the other. We become who we are because of who others are. We define one another, and Quality is the touchstone for that process.

Quality resides in any “objective” encounter: between the individual and nature, between the individual and occupation, between the individual and the smallest of ideas. Until I pick up the hammer, it is not a hammer at all; it becomes a hammer only when I come to appreciate its uses and its purpose through using it to drive home a nail. I am not a carpenter, until that hammer allows me to complete the carpenter’s task through driving home the nail. In other words, until both object and subject allow the other to tap into the Quality that resides in each, neither is complete. They need each other to be who and what they truly are.

As a library cataloger, this is a particular stumbling block for me. It is very easy to fall into the trap of seeing “just one more book,” of forgetting the Quality that lies within both the object and myself, and that is activated and realized through my interaction with it. A piece of myself is taken by the object. I am, in a very real sense, IN the record I produce and the book on the shelf; without me, it could not be as it is. I, at the same time, take a piece of the object. Each volume that passes through my hands, each new cataloging challenge (and they are many) increases my knowledge and expertise, adds to the Quality of “library cataloger” that resides in me. This awareness of underlying Quality, of the true nature of the interaction between myself and the work that I do, brings to the task at hand a refreshing sense of intention and joy. There are no meaningless tasks. Everything is meaningful.

This is a book everyone should read. Given this emphasis on work (especially, as Pirsig notes, the dull kind) and the Quality inherent in it, this book is one which lends itself to use as a training tool for supervisors in all lines of work. It holds the key to change, and opens the eyes to the potential for creativity and meaning in every aspect of daily living, however mundane it may seem.

It really doesn’t matter whether you ride or not: “the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself” (p. 417).

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Book Review: The God Delusion

The God DelusionThe God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dawkins’ The God Delusion is by far the most frustrating book I’ve read in a very long time. I so desperately wanted to love it, as it’s been recommended by several people whose opinions I value. But the best I can go is two stars out of five: the author makes some very good, very perceptive, very necessary points, but they are swallowed up by all the points he doesn’t quite land (including his central point), and by the tone of the book in general.

The author declares that the anthropic principle “provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence” (p. 136). However, the anthropic principle, on its own, is of no explanatory value: it is tantamount to arguing that the building one is standing in is a Macdonalds because the building one is standing in is a Macdonalds. It is a tautology at best: as Dawkins uses it, the presence of life in the universe is explained by the presence of life in the universe (we’re here because we’re here), which is not so much to provide an answer as it is to beg the question. As such, the anthropic principle is not an “alternative” to the creationist stance, as Dawkins claims. It is not an “alternative to” anything. It is a starting point, not a conclusion.

Dawkins espouses natural selection, in part, as the means by which the anthropic principle worked itself out in the case of planet Earth. In this regard, he does a fairly decent job of arguing his case: it is an actual explanation for the ways in which life came about on this world. Many may find it more convincing than the creationist stance–for that matter, so do I. But it is still only AN argument, as is the creationist stance itself. The same may be said of the other mechanisms he suggests whereby the anthropic principle may have found expression in our solar system/universe. They are each continuations of the anthropic principle; without them that principle applies to nothing. While Dawkins accuses religious thinkers of misunderstanding the anthropic principle, one is left with the distinct impression that he has not understood it himself (or that he has, and has chosen to use it anyway, hoping no one will notice the difficulty).

This, however, is not the biggest issue I take with his book. In the final analysis, Dawkins is an elitist and a bully. Throughout the book, contrasts are drawn between the atheist sophisticate and the unsophisticated religious thinker, the “Brights” and the “Dims,” if you will. He makes it very clear, if implicitly so, that disagreement with the Darwinian point of view equals a lower-level intellect, immaturity of mind, etc. It is impossible, in his opinion, for a rational thinker to arrive at any conclusion other than his own. Thus far the elitism. As for the bullying: the natural outcome of Dawkins’ attitude to what he considers unjustified opposing viewpoints is itself fairly Darwinian. One wonders how many “Dawkinsians” came to their position freely, and how many did so because to do otherwise would consign them, willy-nilly, to the stupid, uneducated junk pile? In the case of the “evidence from majority scientific opinion,” how likely is a scientist openly to embrace a religious worldview if the inescapable consequence is being (literally) laughed out of her profession? Ultimately, Dawkins does not allow for honest opposition or argument, not unlike the religious thinkers he criticizes.

Again, Dawkins makes a number of very good, quite necessary points with which even lifelong religious adherents might easily agree. The idea of pasting religious labels on children before they are able to form any concept of what the labels mean is ludicrous and potentially harmful, whether psychologically or simply as affects intellectual openness and honesty. It is laughable for Christians to embrace scientific discovery when it supports what they believe and reject it as soon as it begins to contradict. And so on. Ultimately though, the tone of the book (at least in my opinion) overshadows its content. It is a good rule of thumb to distrust anyone who insists that others think as they do in order to be judged intelligent. This is exactly what Dawkins does, again and again throughout the book.

I am no disciple of any particular faith tradition, but having read this book I am also no disciple of Dawkins. The points he makes are often good; the manner in which those points are made is off-putting at best, completely alienating at worst. The old saying is true: you catch more flies with honey. Dawkins has chucked the honey pot out the window.

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Book Review: The Celtic Way of Evangelism

The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West...AgainThe Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again by George G. Hunter III

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Hunter’s book is a perfect example of the disconnect between professional and amateur Celtic studies. In his defense, the author is up front about his lack of expertise in most things Celtic, but this is not an encouraging bit of honesty when it comes to the practical application of his book. Similar to saying “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV,” to a patient right before the anaesthesia kicks in.

The application of Bible scholar-style hermeneutics to material from hagiography to history is far from satisfying to one whose interest is primarily historical, and rather than reinforcing an interest in “Celtic Christianity,” tends to support the protestations of many scholars that no such entity ever really existed. In other words, it is a fabulous flight of fancy, and as a missiological text it contains a good deal of insight. But that is a far stretch from claiming for Hunter’s theories any but the most tenuous of connections with the Celtic past.

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Book Review: An African Millionaire

An African MillionaireAn African Millionaire by Grant Allen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Simply put, I love this book, and I look forward to reading Allen’s other works.

When I picked it up, I did not expect “African Millionaire” to be as deep and well-crafted as it turned out to be. It is not (no spoiler) at all what I expected, which was essentially a series of twelve “capers,” good guy against bad guy. Instead, I got a well-written, amusing bit of social commentary. Granted, it is not overt in its message, but Allen’s stories leave the reader with very little doubt as to whose side the author is taking.

While all commentaries state that Colonel Clay is the first “gentleman rogue” of literature, the true protagonist of the stories is Sir Charles, who presents an excellent type of the over-confident man of the world, whose self-styled shrewdness provides a perfect foil for his total lack of common sense. The genius of Allen’s style is that Vandrift is not at all an ironic character – the author takes him as seriously as he takes himself, and in so doing gives the reader a perfect view between the lines. This is underscored by the narrator, Wentworth, a character of unrivalled ambiguity and double vision. We know what he thinks of his brother-in-law at the same time that he does not.

Brilliantly written, and a must read (even if crime fiction is not your thing). Because, you see, that’s not really what it is…

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Book Review: Queer (In)Justice

Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United StatesQueer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States by Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The authors of Queer (In)Justice set out to prove two complementary theses. The first deals with the tendency of the “criminal legal system” to deal more harshly with LGBT citizens than with others, and to assume guilt or criminality on the basis of that orientation/identity. It is difficult, based on the evidence they produce, to disagree on this point.

The second thesis is equally compelling, although less thoroughly argued or defended: within the LGBT community at large, LGBT individuals who also belong to minorities are both more persecuted by the legal system and, largely, ignored by LGBT rights groups in favor of the more easily defensible white gay male. In fairness, this second point is harder to demonstrate due to the susceptibility of minority status in general to such discrimination, but even so, the authors choose somewhat weak targets: for example, increased violence toward LGBT Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11 may have little to do with their LGBT identities and much to do with their overarching religious or ethnic backgrounds. There may be a case here to be made, but a choice of less ambiguous examples would be warranted in order to make it.

In any case, whether or not the second hypothesis is warranted, the first in itself demands attention. The authors highlight specifically the weaknesses inherent in the dominant “hate crime” approach to dealing with anti-LGBT violence: giving enhanced punishment capability to law enforcement is pointless if it is law enforcement that ignores these crimes in the first place.

They conclude:

“The choice to pursue strategies that rely on increased policing and punishment to produce safety for queers requires a leap of faith that the system can and will be able to distinguish between the “good” or reputable gay, lesbian, or transgender victim and the “bad,” presumptively criminalized queers. Such faith is deeply misplaced” (p. 146).

Since the LGBT community cannot rely on legal institutions to provide for their security, the authors argue, it is necessary for the LGBT community to create innovative ways of protecting (and policing) itself. They point to action groups that are networking with local businesses to establish Safe Spaces and Safe Havens as unofficial refuges for victims of anti-LGBT violence, and developing HIV/AIDS education and support mechanisms within the American penitentiary system. The only way to get out of the box LGBT individuals have been placed in by the structural deficiencies of the criminal legal system, they argue, is to think outside of it.

Queer (In)Justice is a fascinating and extremely disturbing, yet totally indispensable read, and gives important insight into the plight of the LGBT community in the United States and the extent to which they continue to struggle for equality before the law. As the authors seek to illustrate, LGBT inequality goes far, far beyond the issue of marriage; in many ways, they argue, that is the least of their concerns.

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