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Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (3/5)

10 Jul

This is a book I wasn’t overly excited to read but at the same time, I was really looking forward to. It’s a book I had the feeling I needed to read and couldn’t say explicitly why. It was just one I needed to read. I’m glad my book club picked it so I finally had a reason to.

Cover image via Goodreads

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

Summary from Goodreads:

One of the most important & influential books written in the past half-century, Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a powerfully moving & penetrating examination of how we live, a breathtaking meditation on how to live better. Here is the book that transformed a generation, an unforgettable narration of a summer motorcycle trip across America’s Northwest, undertaken by a father & his young son. A story of love & fear–of growth, discovery & acceptance–that becomes a profound personal & philosophical odyssey into life’s fundamental questions, this uniquely exhilarating modern classic is both touching & transcendent, resonant with the myriad confusions of existence & the small, essential triumphs that propel us forward.

There were many times I felt what I was reading was going over my head. I’m sure a reread would help me understand it better, but I’m not one for rereading books. I followed the trip and I followed Phaedrus’ history, it was the philosophy that I didn’t always follow. I found the history and story fascinating. I don’t think I could travel as far as Chris and Robert did. I’d get too bored and restless. I also found it fascinating how different Robert and Phaedrus were from one another. It was hard to believe they were the same physical person.

I think Robert was very fair in how he portrayed his family and friends. I’m going to assume Robert is the narrator we follow, though it’s never expressly stated. Some of the things he wrote about Chris, I would find embarrassing if my father published in a book. I wondered how Chris felt about it and if he ever ended up suffering from mental illness like Robert did. I wondered how John and Sylvia felt about how they were described. Their dislike for technology comes off as negative n Robert’s eyes but I don’t think it was really a bad thing. I hope they were able to see it that way because it would be terrible if it affected their friendship. I also think it would be interesting to know how Phaedrus’ friends reacted to the book. The man has the same name but remembers nothing about his past. How strange it would be to read something by him and have it sound completely different.

It was hard to sympathize with a single character in this book. We don’t get a lot about any of the major players. Robert doesn’t reveal much about himself except that he’s introspective. Phaedrus and Chris are described very detachedly so that creates a barrier for the reader. It’s hard to say I had a favorite amongst them.

Related to that, I found it hard to sympathize or empathize with any of them either. As much as this book wasn’t about motorcycle maintenance, that was one of the major things about Robert a reader could connect with. Since I’m not a gearhead, I didn’t form that connection and I felt a bit distanced from the characters.

Robert Pirsig and Chris
Image via Levity

I liked reading about Phaedrus best. His story was fascinating and I was very curious how it would end. I think it was paced well through the novel. When I’d get a little bored with the trip or with philosophy, it would pop up again and it kept me reading. I’m glad there was a good bit of it at the end that made the last part of the book fly by.

I’m not really one for philosophy so those parts of the book were slow for me. I followed the discussion about quality well enough, but the beginning part about classical and romantic thought was a bit over my head. I understood it on the surface but the more Pirsig got into it, the more confused I was and the slower I read. It was hard for me to get into a book that distracted me so much at the beginning and I think that’s why it took me so long to read a book that, on the whole, I enjoyed.

I’ve heard several people say this book has changed their outlook on life or the way they think about things. I did not have a major revelation like this. I think this book gave me a new definition of quality but other than that, I don’t think it will have a lasting impact on how I view the world. One of my biggest takeaways was how mental illness can change a person. Phaedrus is so different from Robert that they’re no longer the same person and I couldn’t view them in such a way. I thought that was really insightful and it made it hard for Robert because he still looked like Phaedrus but needed to be viewed as a different person.

Writer’s Takeaway: I don’t think I’ll ever be a non-fiction writer, but I think weaving the three plots together the way Pirsig did made the book move along well without dragging on any one plot. A book that focused fully one only one of those plots would have been hard to get through, but all three together was a delight.

I’m not sure I was the best audience for this book. Three out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig | Cellar Door
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