Books: May 2012

by macksemil


“The place to improve the world is first in ones heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think what I have to say has more lasting value.” – Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

This book just grabbed my eye as I was picking up some other titles at The Book Bin in Salem. I had heard the name a few times before and decided to take a chance on it. After I bought it my mother told me that the book was a hot topic when it first came out in the mid 1970s. It took me a while to get through but not because it was a bad read but because it didn’t lend itself to reading quickly. This book is a hunk of stale rye bread; you’ll lose your gumption if you try to do more than slowly chew up one stubborn bit at a time.

Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to chronicle his personal struggles with the values of our society through his life. His calm and systematic voice guides us through the work. Throughout the book he holds true to the main themes: a love for the maintenance of his motorcycle  and a condemnation of the dehumanising aspects of modern society. Pirsig uses motorcycle maintenance to illustrate negative thought processes that persist in our culture such as impatience, disdain for understanding technical processes and a general closed-minded approach to problem solving. Alongside the more pertinent dialogues are interspersed little bits of guidance having to do with tackling projects and by the end of the book I actually wanted to take a motorcycle apart and rebuild it.

Through the book we follow the author and his son Chris on a cross-country motorcycle trip. Interwoven throughout the story are two streams of dialogue. The first is the author’s relation of the motorcycle trip with his son, rich with acute descriptions of landscapes from the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains, high desert and the coastal forests as they traverse the continent from Minneapolis to San Fransisco. Throughout the old western towns along nearly forgotten back roads Pirsig observes a certain amount of lonely contemplation in the eyes of the residents which he lays in sharp contrasts to the robotic monotony of the chaotic big cities and free ways.  The second stream of dialogue is the of the author trying to piece together fragments of his life before a nervous breakdown and subsequent shock treatments. The ghost of himself in the time before his treatments, named Phaedrus, appears early in the book and Pirsig is then doomed to relive and relate to the reader his  reconciliation with this ghost.

  Throughout his life he had seen through the holes in the educational system. Pirsig explains his early disillusionment with the sciences, briefly his excursions into eastern philosophy and then at length his career teaching English composition at a small college. Throughout his grading of essays he identifies an ambiguous character of good work which Pirsig calls “Quality.” This characteristic of good work is identifiable but not easily quantifiable – a dilemma that sends him reeling through the texts of ancient thinkers and the academic halls of the then modern educational institution in a tireless quest to grind his axe on the headstones of Aristotle, Plato, the Sophists, Socrates and many others.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maitnenance is a powerful book. It is apparent that this is Pirsig’s life work, that he poured everything he had into this book. It’s heavy and a bit unwieldy at times but worth the effort to become acquainted with Pirsig’s philosophy. Switching back and forth between the deeply personal story of he and his son’s troubles  on the road and the reconciliation with Phaedrus’s philosophical battles leaves the reader with one foot in a novel and the other in a philosophy text. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was well done and I enjoyed every bit of it.



“We traversed the San Gabriel Mountains over Cajon Pass and got into San Bernardino, California late that night. I left Jimbo and Frank sleeping on the grain car and caught out on a different train to Yuma. I still wonder whether the Jesus freak converted Jimbo before Jimbo knifed him. ”  Wayne Iverson – Hobo Sapien

I bought Hobo Sapien online when it popped up int he recommended books section. Apparently I have a tendency to buy books related to hobos and trains. The description looked interesting – a former hobo and monk writes about his experiences hopping trains. It’s funny that I should read this book directly after Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as Iverson likens his book to Pirsig’s on the back cover. In my opinion the claim has no merit, it’s a totally different type of book.

Hobo Sapien is intentionally set up similarly to the Tao Te Ching. Iverson tells a story with a lesson at the end, each composing a few pages. The short stories are about hopping trains, being a city manager in small towns in Colorado,  hitch hiking, attending college between Yale and Evergreen and a seven year stint as monk in a monastic order.

Although the writing isn’t particularly engaging and contains some errors, it is endearing and Iverson does have a few gems of stories to relate. Sometimes the message at the end feels canned or stretched to fit whichever story he was relating at the time. Iverson describes riding the rails mostly in the western United States. He spent most of his time riding the rails near Colorado but includes a stint up in Alaska as well. Iverson is a bit of an amateur railroad historian and the little bits of railroad history were interesting to read.

Overall, this book had a few stories that were fun to read and some interesting historical information but the spiritual insights were almost a detraction for me. The book didn’t leave much of a lasting impression but was a fun read for a few days – I actually read the second half of the book sitting in the hole of a grainer from Klamath Falls to Dunsmuir.  It’s nice to see another book about riding the rails, but if you’re in the market I could recommend a few other titles that would be more worth your while.

I’m adding a point to the book-o-meter score just because this book is about trains.