Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

This was an interesting philosophical fiction with many interesting life questions, but it just couldn’t hold my attention very well.   This book was a huge success when it was released in 1974.  I do believe it was ahead of its time, but it’s not telling us anything new today…  The ideas in his book are pretty wide-spread these days, but Robert has a great way of putting some tough philosophical questions into a story anyone can read and enjoy.

So, what’s it all about?   The plot line is simple –   It is about a father and 11 year old son traveling across the United States on a 17 day motorcycle trip.  They start in Minneapolis with the Sutherlands, a couple who he is friends with.  They part ways when they reach Montana, which is a significant place for the narrator (past college teaching career), and the father and son continue on until they reach California.  But it’s not the motorcycle trip that is the interesting part of the book, it’s the segments in-between his descriptive motorcycle scenes and activities that keep you reading.   Some parts of the book are heavy, so the motorcycle riding scenes are a nice break.

During his Chautauqua, or traveling tale, he examines ideas about life and how best to live it. He ponders technological questions and sees a conflict in the Sutherlands because they feel oppressed by technology but at the same time are dependent on it. He asks and ponders how we can live in a world where we can pursue technology in an enriching way rather than a degrading one.   He asks why technology has alienated us from our world (which is more true today than in 1974).

The narrator also discusses the two types of personalities; the romantic approach versus the classical approach.   The romantic approach is more subjective and geared towards art, beauty, zen, and being in the moment.   The classical approach is more objective and focuses on rational analysis, and knowing the details and inner workings.   The narrator starts off with a classical approach but changes throughout the book and is ultimately aiming for a middle ground.

He makes a good argument in the book stating that the Greeks did not distinguish between truth and quality because they were one and the same.   They were split, and now this is the cause of many people’s unhappiness and dissatisfaction.   He also delves deeply into values and what is considered good and bad.

The narrator had a dramatic past during his college teaching days, and he often brings it up throughout the book.   He refers to this mysterious shadow called Phaedrus, which we later learn is his previous self when he was a college professor. When he was Phaedrus, he would obsess over what is defined as good writing, or what he called “quality”.   This drove him to madness and he had a nervous breakdown.   He then underwent a psychiatric procedure called electroconvulsive therapy which altered his mind.   His personality changed, and he was no longer the person he was before the procedure.     Towards the end of the book, pieces of his past personality (Phaedrus) emerge and become part of him again, leading to a reconciliation of his former self and new self.

Robert tries to send us the message that anything we do can be enjoyable, even if it seems dull and boring.  It all depends on the attitude we adopt toward the activity.  We must become one with the activity, appreciate all the details, and engage in it fully.  We need to embrace both sides – the romantic and rational approach.  We need to embrace intuition, which seems to come from nowhere, as well as technology, science, and reason.   Through the combination of these two approaches and being in the moment, we can attain a higher quality of life.

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