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).

View all my reviews

Heroes, Unplugged


One of the perqs of working as a cataloger is the fact that a good portion of the library’s incoming materials crosses my desk at some point in its journey from box to shelf. Two years ago, I intercepted a book about the development of the British and Irish novel between 1880 and 1940, and as I worked it over, I discovered a wonderfully abundant bibliography at the end of the book that listed every novel discussed within its pages. As anyone who knows me even in passing can tell you (probably with a sigh), I am a bit obsessed with anything having to do with the British Isles, so I rushed down to the office photocopier and ran myself a copy. And then I started working my way through it, A to Z.

On my second outing, I hit paydirt. Which brings me to the third installment of the Big List, featuring Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero (1929). [Sidenote: Up until fairly recently, this book was out of print, hard to find, and hard on the pocketbook. However, it has just this year been released as a Penguin Classic, which you can order here for a mere $12.00.]

The 1920s were a compelling time in British literary history, as the people of the Isles struggled to come to terms with the horrors of the Great War and the swift kick to the shins it doled out to progressivist thinkers. An entire generation of men had disappeared without a trace, mowed down in the trenches of Flanders and other points along the Western Front. The inevitable tendency of human history toward the good no longer held up to social scrutiny. Into this pregnant pause stepped Aldington and others like him, men who had braved the French fields and made it home alive…and who were all too conscious of those others who did not. They were angry; they were disillusioned; they longed to give the finger to the “Dulce et Decorum” crowd and tell them they could all go to hell on a one-way train. And nobody did it better than Aldington, through his (anti-)hero George Winterbourne. So much so, that the first edition of the book was heavily censored. (Rather than bow to the demands of his publishers, Aldington insisted that the book be published with bracketed ellipses in place of the redacted text.)

Death of a Hero follows the ill-fated ramblings of young Winterbourne from his infancy onward, chronicling the sociocultural machine that oversaw his development and, ultimately, hung him out to dry. In the process, the novelist brilliantly deconstructs (and then redefines) the heroic ideal that had in turn-of-the-century Britain become synonymous with the idea of patriotism, to the point that the one was assumed to dictate the other. As the War on Terror continues to rear its ugly head around the world, spawning greater and greater conflicts even in its resolution, Aldington’s observations have become timely once again.

I leave you with one of my favorite passages from the book:

“George, though he didn’t realise it then, wasn’t going to be a bit of any damned Empire’s backbone, still less part of its kicked backside. He didn’t mind going to hell, and disgracing himself and his parents and his House and The School, if only he could go to Hell in his own way. That’s what they couldn’t stand—the obstinate passive refusal to accept their prejudices, to conform to their minor-gentry, kicked-backside-of-the-Empire code. They worried him, they bullied him, they frightened him with cock-and-bull yarns about Smut and noses dropping off; but they didn’t get him. I wish he hadn’t been worried and bullied to death by those two women. I wish he hadn’t stood up to that machine-gun just one week before the Torture ended. After he had fought the swine (i.e. the British ones) so gallantly for so many years. If only he had hung on a little longer, and come back, and done what he wanted to do! He could have done it, he could have “got there”; and then even “The School” would have fawned on him. Bloody fool! Couldn’t he see that we have only one duty—to hang on, and smash the swine?”

Happy reading!

Corinna Keefe

As the second installment of the “Big List,” I want to introduce you to my new favorite blogger: Corrina Keefe. If you’re interested (and trust me, you SHOULD be interested), check out her latest post, “A poetic reason to write more,” here.

Nothing gets my blood (and my brain) pumping faster than words, well-used words, words that are playful, loving, cleverly arranged. This morning, I had the distinct pleasure of stumbling across exactly that sort of thing. Writing that is so complex and full of meaning, revealed and hidden, that you want to read it over and over again to ensure complete comprehension, and that even then leaves a sneaking suspicion that one more reading might uncover just a bit more meaning. Words carefully selected, like eggs: cautiously, because fragile, judiciously, because (as everyone knows about eggs, and few understand about words) the one that’s rotten spoils the dozen. Words assembled with such skill that I doubt the adequacy of my own to do them justice.

I’ve offered a link to one specific post on this marvelous blog, but my inclusion of this talented writer in my list is in recognition of the blog in general. Read it all. It’ll be worth it.

And to the blogger in question: Thanks for giving my morning a nice sort of buzz. I look forward to reading the rest of your work myself, and to the things you have yet to write.

Meet the Big Shaggy

Here’s the first of (hopefully) many entries in our list of required reading. Since I began by discussing the need for a universal language, some keycode that will allow us access to the workings of the multifaceted human mind, I thought this would be a good place to start:

David Brooks, “History for Dollars.” The New York Times, June 7, 2010. You can access this article here:

I was working, that summer, on an essay for the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies (Vol. XXIII/1: 2011) on John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University (which will also be featured on this list in future), and in the process of researching the topic, I came across this editorial of Brooks’. In an age of practical education, when pragmatism outshines idealism and philosophy gives way to the paycheck, Brooks reminds us of the need for continued study of the humanities, and through them, of humanity itself. He calls it The Big Shaggy, one of the best descriptions of that hairy monster that lives inside us all and inspires both the best and the worst acts we commit, from the impulse that led to the bombing of the Boston marathon to the courage that led first responders to give their lives for the people of West, Texas, when their fertilizer plant blew.

Brooks reminds us that there is more to life than business or computer science degrees can adequately address. We are living beings, bundles of contradictory emotions that refuse to be reconciled or explained. Truth be told, there is some measure of bipolarity in all of us: we oscillate between happiness and sadness, confidence and depression; we lash out in fear as often as we reach out in love; we struggle to keep our ship of state from tacking wildly in the winds of change. In order to truly understand one another, to see the man behind the curtain (if you will), we need to see into the machinery that makes us tick. We need to meet The Big Shaggy.

Happy reading!

The Big List of Stuff We All Should Read (and Then Discuss in a Friendly and Respectful Fashion)


Someone recently gave me an idea for an interesting project (which you may or may not find equally interesting, or even remotely intriguing). Anyway, a comment was made on one of my posts about things that should be required reading, and I think this is an angle that warrants further exploration. Because, you see, all too often we waste our time talking at cross-purposes, like the Bushman in Africa who thought the Coke bottle came from the heavens. (Back in the day, kids, Coke came in little glass bottles. God, I’m old…) Ordinary conversation mystifies us; we don’t recognize it when we see it; we assume disagreement implies an inability to communicate, and consequently what is presumed to be inability becomes mere unwillingness. We don’t trust each other in the zero-sum world created by partisan pundits and ad hominem politics, and if we don’t trust, what could possibly inspire us to share? We don’t really even speak the same language anymore, it seems…

Except we do. Over the centuries, thinkers have wrestled with the same communications difficulties our minds are boggled by today; they have poised themselves on the same dotted line as we do, separating black from white, right from wrong; they have stared into the heavens and into their hearts in search of truth, that ever-elusive ideal that terrorizes and inspires us all. And in many cases they have written it down, out of the blindness of their finite little hearts, and left it as a marker for those of us carrying the torch through the next stage of this existential marathon we call human history.

What we need is a common language, a lingua franca, a cultural Esperanto that allows us both to understand what others are talking about and where they’re coming from, and that maybe (just maybe!) inspires us to hold our tongues and listen instead of just spouting off. Better to be a sugar bowl than a teapot, if you know what I mean. So, what we need is a common language, and in the written works of our forebears and our contemporaries, I believe we may find it. We may just discover a key that will unlock the way the minds, hearts, and souls of others work, what makes them tick.

(Quick sidebar: We may also discover that we don’t like some of them very much; for that matter, they might not have liked us very much, either, had we been their contemporaries. An interesting mental exercise is to ask myself whether, had I been around during Augustine’s time, there might not have been a Contra Vancus in the offing. However, the negative is as much a part of the picture as the positive; we need it all if we are to understand each other and the world we live in. We need to embrace the frogs along with the princes [or princesses]. Take offense, if you will, but then take that offense and turn it into a solution.)

Anyway, the idea is to create a list that we think will help us all get past the epistemic block and start to hear and understand all that gobbledygook coming out of other folks’ mouths. What are the things YOU think we should all read? Books, articles, blog posts, Chinese takeout menus–anything will do. In future posts, I will begin to compile a list of my personal picks. When you think of something, if you wish, please send me the title (along with a link if it’s web-based) and a brief explanation of what it’s about and why you think it’s an important contribution, and I’ll post it along with the others.

I dream of a time when public discourse is reclaimed by the public and no longer left to the “pundits abundant” that yell at us every time we turn on our televisions, radios, computers, etc. Is this just a pipe dream? The romantic idealist inside me refuses to accept that. I hope you do, too…