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Monday, February 09, 2009

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Philosophy is almost always boring especially when it exceeds a few hundred words. I have not been successful in reading books on philosophy because of the dense nature of the subject.

Yes, I have enjoyed reading the history of philosophy, and am particularly fond of Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy. But serious philosophy is an obstacle to reading.

Meghnad forced me (in a friendly sort of way) to read at least one book by the existential philosophers Sartre and Camus. He choose the books for me: Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Camus’s The Outsider (The Stranger). Meghnad’s fascination for the existential was a classic mid-20th century affliction shared by many of his contemporaries.

I found Sartre unbearable, and did not complete Being and Nothingness. Camus was absolutely riveting. The novel begins with a sentence that has is perhaps the most famous line of fiction written in the last century: "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.” My other favourite line is from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

By the time I began to read books with a greater degree of seriousness, and my aversion to philosophy subsided a bit, I borrowed Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An inquiry into values.

The title of the book is what attracted me to it. As I began to read it, I began to enjoy it. The book works on several levels. The most basic level is of course as a travelogue of the author's 17-day road trip on his motorbike, accompanied by his son. The other (and the more meaningful level) is as a philosophical treatise on quality. Perhaps because I was young when I first read it, or because it was the first such book that I read with interest, I read it twice.

The concept of quality that Phaedrus – the book’s main character – introduces to the reader and analyzed in this book is further developed into a full-fledged theory (Metaphysics of Quality) in the second book Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was first published in 1974. It has become an institution. The Wikipedia site on the book (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zen_and_the_Art_of_Motorcycle_Maintenance) informs me that it was rejected by 121 publishers before it was published. And then went on to become one of the most widely read philosophy book ever.

The reason for its amazing popularity is quite obvious: It’s written in a non-academic, story-telling style. Most serious students of philosophy have found the book seriously wanting in philosophical content, and have found the basic premise of the book questionable if not laughable.

More people from my generation – those in their teens in the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s – have read Pirsig’s book than any other book on philosophy. That perhaps only means that most of those who are middle-aged right now are quite stupid, or that Pirsig had something to offer.

The jury's out on that one.
(Pirsig's illustration is by Siegfried Woldhek and taken from http://woldhek.nl/files/cv-siegfried-oldhek-mrt06.pdf)

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