Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

This is my third time through Zen and the Art, and I always find something new and interesting. Robert Persig’s work is a strange shaggy dog of a book that’s part philosophical treatise, part maybe-memoir, part reflections on the times.  I think some of it is indispensable, some of it is self-indulgent, some of it is brilliant, and some of it is misguided.  It’s a very open conversation with an interesting author.

The parts I invariably enjoy the most and get the most out of are the discussions of worldview and philosophy of seeing the world with a clear mind. Every time I’ve read it, I’ve found new and interesting insights and inspirations in these parts of the book, which are mainly the early parts.  These sections are an approachable, conversational description of, well, lots of things.  Of particular interest to me are the insights into how different people view technology, and how technologists (in particular) can benefit from arranging their thoughts on technology and problem solving.  There’s much more in here, and that description undersells it.

The parts I like less are the memoir and family drama associated with the main character coming to terms with the costs of acquiring this knowledge and trying to get recognition of that work from the academic orthodoxy. That’s certainly driven by my views on orthodoxy.  I don’t seek much validation from the orthodoxy about my worldview.  I try to keep an open mind when people smarter than me talk, but I really dislike arguments from authority.  The climactic parts of the memoir center around the author’s reaction to the authority unfairly crushing his attempt put forth his ideas.

I understand that the memoir wouldn’t be interesting if the system of thought wasn’t compelling. I empathize with the author’s sincere pain – and the pain of others rejected by the system. I understand that the 60’s and 70’s were different times, and that a frustrated philosopher couldn’t publish on the Internet and gain a following there.  But I still feel like so much of the angst and despair of the memoir was avoidable.

And then I wonder if that’s exactly the lesson Persig is trying to get across.  Zen and the Art is interesting because it does encourage looking at old things in new ways, probably including Zen and the Art. Or not.  I go back and forth.

Persig’s book remains a fascinating, consciousness-expanding work.

Strongly recommended.

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