Monday, April 15, 2013

Re-read: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mainteneance

I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in high school, and reading it then was an amazing discovery. I remember not being able to stop reading it, going on until well past midnight, barely able to stop when it was time to sleep, and finishing it the next day. When I saw that the Kindle edition was down to $2.99, I didn't hesitate and bought it and read it again.

Books are different beasts when you read them a second time. The first time I loved the description of the scientific method and it's application to debugging computer programs (in addition to the problems you find when you need to repair a motorcycle):
When you’ve hit a really tough one, tried everything, racked your brain and nothing works, and you know that this time Nature has really decided to be difficult, you say, “Okay, Nature, that’s the end of the nice guy,” and you crank up the formal scientific method. For this you keep a lab notebook. Everything gets written down, formally, so that you know at all times where you are, where you’ve been, where you’re going and where you want to get. In scientific work and electronics technology this is necessary because otherwise the problems get so complex you get lost in them and confused and forget what you know and what you don’t know and have to give up. (Loc 1603)
This time around, I found another part of the story, the story about a father and son, re-united after a horrifying personal disaster, and the realization that it as his son that brought him out of the psychiatric ward:
We’re related to each other in ways we never fully understand, maybe hardly understand at all. He was always the real reason for coming out of the hospital. To have let him grow up alone would have been really wrong. In the dream too he was the one who was always trying to open the door. I haven’t been carrying him at all. He’s been carrying me! (Loc 6249)
What's great about the book is that all this is interspersed with a motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California. It's full of little tips about cycle touring that indicate that Pirsig did do quite a bit of motorcycle touring, though he does spend way too much time on a freeway in California instead of riding down the coast. (And much like most tourists, he makes the mistake of visiting the California coast during the summer, when it's mostly fogged in) There are also little interesting observations about people on the road:
While we wait for chocolate malteds I notice a high-schooler sitting at the counter exchanging looks with the girl next to him. She’s gorgeous, and I’m not the only other one who notices it. The girl behind the counter waiting on them is also watching with an anger she thinks no one else sees. Some kind of triangle. We keep passing unseen through little moments of other people’s lives. (Loc 4385)
Ultimately, the book's a philosophical novel, with lots of explanation of the authors' ideas about the nature of Quality, the split between the arts and the sciences, and his attempts to unify the two by keeping Quality undefined as, "You know it when you see it." For a rhetoric class at the places Pirsig has taught, I think this approach might work. For those of us working in technology, however, I'm not sure that non-definition is useful. There's a certain sense that those who care passionately enough about their work enough to have strong opinions and defend them are better engineers than those for whom engineering is "just work." On the other hand, you could argue that in many ways, the constant arguments over the quality of say, the choice of programming language is well over-blown, and people would mostly be better of getting work done than engaging in the low-Quality flame wars that you find on the internet.

Regardless of how you feel, however, the novel is thought-provoking, interesting, and never dull, despite being mostly about ideas, rather than being about characters or plot. It's a great book and well worth reading and re-reading. Highly recommended.
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