Some books defy summary. So, I won’t even try.
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The structure of this book is either a) the message itself or b) a way of masking the lack of a message. Pirsig has a Philosophy—a big think, redo everything about the world, Philosophy. He sketches it out in this book. If this book was just that Philosophy, you’d think it was the wild ramblings of that crazy grad student whom you hate to see at a cocktail party because you know he will just start going off on his theory and he will never shut up and in the end his theory makes no sense but he is so convinced it not only makes sense but it will revolutionize the world if only you could understand this big idea he has which isn’t really definable because, you see, rationality is a trap and he sees how we can get around that trap by going beyond or above or around (it’s never really clear) rationality to see the true thing which is One and which generates everything from Rationality itself to Humanity to how to repair a motorcycle and let me just show you how some obscure details in motorcycle repair are really examples of this Oneness of all our ideas…and by this point you are frantically looking around the room hoping someone will come over and interrupt this guy and save you from this conversation, but everyone else in the room is avoiding eye contact with you because they see the guy talking to you and nobody else wants to get trapped in this conversation. If the book had been just this, nobody would have read it. It would have been the manuscript of a guy you knew was going to end up in an insane asylum.
Robert Pirsig ended up in an insane asylum.
He came out. Schizophrenic. So, the other, normal Pirsig wrote a book about his motorcycle trip across America. He had his son with him. The drove and stopped and drove again and stopped again and drove again. Nothing of any interest whatsoever happened on this trip. If that had been the book, nobody would have read it.
But, somehow combine those two things: guy takes trip on motorcycle and starts describing the theories of that old, pre-insane asylum guy and suddenly you have a 1970s bestseller. The structure is clever in a way. Pirsig can talk about his theories, but if you think there are giant holes all over the place, that is just because he is, you know, sketching out his fragmentary memories of what his other self thought before his other self went insane.
Oh, but Pirsig is a clever one—after he has lulled you into all this, it turns out that his other self wasn't insane at all, it is his new conventional self that is insane for thinking that life should be boring and conventional and so Pirsig rides off into sunset in the last chapter laughing maniacally now that his old self, which was not insane, triumphs in his schizophrenic battle. And we feel free and liberated and forget that that the philosophical theory had all those strange holes because, you know, it’s a happy ending and I feel so good about myself right now. Or something like that.
Now you don’t want to read the book. But, you know what? Despite the fact that this book is utterly absurd and pretentious and annoying in a million ways, I enjoyed reading it. Why?
“The trouble is that essays always have to sound like God talking for eternity, and that isn’t the way it ever is. People should see that it’s never anything other than just one person talking from one place in time and space and circumstance. It’s never been anything else, ever, but you can’t get that across in an essay.”
Therein lies the clever part of this book: this is just Pirsig ruminating about his life and philosophy while riding on his motorcycle. You don’t have to treat all that Philosophy stuff in the book as some sort of mandate from God; it’s just a guy on his motorcycle remembering his life and what he used to think about and the circumstances in which he thought about it.
That’s the part that made the book an enjoyable read. It was less what Pirsig was saying and more triggering all sorts of thoughts about things from my own life and what I think and why I think what I think. Pirsig’s book was, in other words, like a really long blog entry in which the events of his life trigger thoughts about other events in his life which trigger thoughts about what he thinks about Life, the Universe, and Everything. Pirsig uses motorcycle maintenance as a Launchpad. I use books. Pirsig thinks like a westernized Zen Buddhist, 1970s style. I think like an American Evangelical Protestant. So, I could rename this blog: “Evangelicalism and the Art of Reading” and it would be pretty much the same thing. Except I never went insane and ended up in an insane asylum getting electric shock treatment.
Where does this this all lead? Pirsig taught English composition classes in college for a while and one of the things he tried to do was get his students thinking about deep, big things like “What is Quality?” Pirsig would have been an annoying teacher. Which is exactly what I am at times. Annoying. You don’t have to take my word for it, though. (Note to my current and former students who are about to write me and tell me I am not as bad a teacher as I am pretending to be here—yeah, I know. Bear with me a minute.)
In my economics classes, I assign supplemental books. I assign them to try to convince students that the world is bigger and more interesting than a textbook and a lecture, that there is this whole world of knowledge and a joy of learning things out there. I tell them to just read the book and enjoy it and that I will throw a few questions on the test about the book and if they read the book they will know the answers to the questions, but really, just read and enjoy the books. Some students do this and they love it. Other students just skip the reading. Then there are that few who get really angry about it. Last semester, one of those angry students wrote on the course evaluation: “Why do I need to read only for knowledge?” That comment has both deeply amused me and deeply intrigued me since I read it. At one level it is funny. You come to college and get upset that you might need to, you know, read a book in order to get something called knowledge? But, then again, on the other hand, I understand the complaint: students have been conditioned to think that college isn’t about knowledge; it is about getting good grades to get a good job. So, if the purpose of a professor is to hand out the material which will be on the test used to determine the grade and thus the job prospects, then why should a student be expected to read for something as irrelevant as knowledge? Why, after all, do I, the Professor, impose my view that gaining knowledge, and more importantly gaining the desire to acquire knowledge, is a more important goal than grade maximization?
Similarly in my Great Books classes, I spend a lot of time letting conversations wander all over and constantly arguing against whatever was just said. Some students find themselves caught up into whole new thought patterns by this exercise and love every minute of it. Some students hate it. Last semester, again on the course evaluation, one student wrote: “I do not like the way he conveys his ideas that makes him sound like a stubborn 3 year old.” Again, I was both amused and intrigued. I know exactly what she means. I spend a lot of time in a Great Books classes asking “why?” over and over and over and over. Why is the outrageous thing I said wrong? Why is what you just said right? So, if the student who wrote that evaluation were to have said that in class, I would have instantly asked “Why is that bad?” And no matter what she said, I would have then asked “Why is what you just said right?” And she would have said I was acting like a stubborn 3 year old. Socrates also acted like a stubborn 3 year old. He was really annoying when you get right down to it. They killed him for it. Fortunately, I just get a course evaluation saying she didn’t like the class.
So, why do I think all this pondering about Big Questions is so interesting? Why do I want to share my belief that thinking about Big Questions is endlessly fascinating? How best to convey that belief? Well, how about using mundane details from my life—like a couple of comments on teaching evaluations—as a means for thinking about the purpose of education? Interestingly, if I knew a class full of students would all complain about being expected to read for knowledge, I would just assign more books to be read for knowledge. If I knew a class would complain that I argued like a stubborn 3 year old, I would increase the frequency of times I asked “Why?” Apparently I am a contrarian. Is that part of my nature or part of my philosophy of learning?
A shocking addendum: In an afterward written 10 years later, Pirsig notes that the manuscript for his book was rejected 121 times before someone finally agreed to publish it. That fascinates me. What kind of person sends a manuscript to a publisher after 121 previous publishers have rejected it?
By the way, if you don;t want to read 531 pages of Pirsig, you can just watch the movie.