Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Where's Luke? Book Review:
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I need to apologize before I start writing this, because this "review" is going to suck ass. I read this book over a year ago and I should have posted about it back then, but I didn't. But now that I have read Atlas Shrugged and posted about it and its philosophy, I'm reminded of another book that was fairly enlightening, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I'm reminded of this book now because it's also a philosophical treatise in the form of a novel. And just as with Atlas Shrugged, about two thirds of the way through this book, I decided that I was in the midst of a really interesting experience and I should try to hold on to some of the ideas. At the same time, the book I wrote about prior to Atlas Shrugged was On The Road, which is also about a road trip, several road trips actually, and was ultimately a poorly realized philosophical statement. Immediately after I wrote about On The Road I thought about writing abotu Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I never did. But seeing as how ZAMM really kindof integrates my previous two book review endeavors, this is a good time to write it.

Anyhow, the book is ostensibly about a dude who's on a cross country motorcycle trip with his son. They begin the trip with some friends of the dad's and finish it alone. As far as plot goes, that's the whole story. Interspersed throughout the novel are some in depth analyses of how people view the world and the pros and cons of each. The narrator talks about his travelling companion who refuses to even think about the maintenance of his motorcycle and leaves it to a mechanic which eventually causes trouble for him. The narrator prefers to get to know his motorcycle and listen to its sounds and explore the various connections and such and so he can then make most of the minor repairs that are necessary along the way. This is a thinly veiled analogy to the world at large and what he calls a "romantic" view of life (don't think about maintenance) and a "classical" view of life (get to know your motorcycle). This stuff is pretty interesting and you get an idea of the basic framework of this guy's ideas.

Then about half way through the book he starts to flash back more and more to when he was a professor of rhetoric and he started on a quest for discovering the nature of what he calls "quality". At this point the people they were travelling with have either gotten to where they were going or have gone another way and it's just the son and the narrator. The book becomes much less about the journey and much more about these flashbacks and the idea of quality. There's a lot more stuff that comes out about this guy that you may or may not want to know if you plan on reading the book, so I'll leave it out. Anyway, at this point the guy kindof starts building the framework of a philosophy based on the idea of quality.

To say that this is a philosophy would be wrong. What this guy is doing is looking at all the existing philosophies from a new perspective and overlaying a framework into how to look at the world. I don't have too firm a grasp on it at this point to put into words since I read this so long ago. The main idea, though, is that he builds on this idea of quality while at the same time telling what I understand is an autobiographical story. Autobiographical in the sense that the guy actually did take a motorcycle trip with his son and he was a professor of rhetoric and everything else that happened actually did happen.

What's novel, then, are the machinations of this guy's thought process and his ideas about the way things are. In this respect, this book is eight million times more successful than On The Road. There's deep analysis of things that happen and the guy is interested in the whys and hows, what motivates people, how people react to him, and so forth. This stuff is really interesting.

Anyhow, while I was reading this book, the first couple hundred pages I kindof read through and it was holding my attention and then all of a sudden this book smacks you in the face and you can't put it down. It's broken into four sections and sections III and IV I read about twice as fast as sections I and II because it just got ridiculously interesting as he goes through the ideas of quality, looks at existing eastern and western philosophy, and tells the story of how he came to terms with his search for quality. Even if I had written this post in a timely fashion, I wouldn't really have words to describe the tone of the fourth part of the book other than fascinating.

I'll just end with this. After it was written this book was turned down by 121 publishers before finally being published. The woman who finally decided to publish it wrote a note to her boss (I'm paraphrasing, but I'm prtty close) that said, "I don't know how much it will sell, but this is quite probably a work of genius. I think we have to publish it." I agree with that.

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