During the break between Spring Semester and Summer B, while I wasn’t teaching for the first time in years, I read the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” It’s actually a strange story how I came to read it.
Most of my readers know I rarely read fiction. But this book was a long time in coming. I have been into Zen, to various degrees, for more than 20 years. When I was relative neonate to Zen, having only read one or two books, people would always ask “Have you read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?” I would always answer “no” of course. Then the next time I was in a book store I’d pick it up and read a little: a little in the beginning, then a little in the middle, as I do with any book I might be interested in. Without fail the several times I did this I returned “Zen…” back to the shelf. I had relatively no interest. Recently I’ve done this with “The Power of Now” at least as many times (and I still have little interest. People’s encouragement gets me to pick it up, but I have inevitably returned it to the shelf). When I picked up this book “Zen…”, it just never grabbed me.
So right before I’m about to leave for Puerto Rico my girlfriend and I are in Borders where she hopes to purchase a book for the trip. While browsing the discount section, I run across a hard copy edition of “Zen…” for $7.99. How can anyone pass up a hard cover edition of a classic for that price? I couldn’t, hence I finally read it.
First I’d like to say that “Zen…” is much more a work of literature than any type of instruction on Zen. In fact, unless you are already into Zen and if it weren’t in the title, you probably wouldn’t notice it had a Zen attitude at all. It seems to be much more about philosophy in relation to the Greeks (Plato, Socrates, Aristotle) than to Eastern philosophy.
The book, without giving too much away, focuses on an extended road trip on a motorcycle between a father and his minor son. There is also a great deal about a guy from the narrator’s past who was a college professor teaching English, and in particular, rhetorical response. There are other characters that vary from lasting half the book or who are purely peripheral. The story vacillates between the motorcycle trip, the remembrance of this professor, and some theories of logic and philosophy. There is some very deep thinking in the book, and it certainly went over my head from time to time (that might not be as difficult as you think). Although I struggled with some of the philosophical and logic discussion at times, it did not deter me from the story, and all in all, I did not feel it detracted from this being a great modern work of literature.
I have been discussing an idea for a book with a peer who tells a written story in a much better fashion than I. I believe this book inspired me further to try to tell the story, as this was very well written and often riveted me to the tale. As someone who doesn’t read much fiction I am leery of making strong statements about it. But this book seems like an excellent read to me, and as it has sold millions and millions of copies all over the world for over 30 years, I do not believe I am taking much of a leap. But I caution my reader that they are reading a story, and they shouldn’t expect too much in guidance toward Zen, or current motorcycle maintenance for that matter.
As an aside, if you decide to read the book, which seems to be based on some actual events in the author’s life, I suggest you also read the afterward. It is sad but very real.