Zen and the Art of a Good Read

If memory serves (and that’s a crapshoot these days), I was 16 when one of my high school teachers, Mrs. Nordquist (or Nordy for short), pulled me aside and handed me Robert M. Pirsig’s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Her copy was well worn, spine taped together with notes scribbled in the margins throughout. She didn’t go into much detail, but simply offered up a few passing comments about how it affected her as a young person and how she thought it would resonate with me as well. My interest was piqued, as she sought me out specifically for this hand-off. She might have overestimated my ability for mental cognition that day. I certainly did.

At any rate, I took it home that night, cracked the crusty old cover open and dove in headlong. I made it two pages. Maybe three. It sat on my nightstand for a few months, collecting dust as I periodically tried to continue on. But to be completely honest, 16 year old Sam was much more interested in reading issues of MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL or the latest Transworld mag than he was reading a heady, philosophical novel about “reasoning” and the definition of “quality.” I ultimately threw in the towel right before the summer break, dropping it off on my teacher’s desk with a note that read, “Thoroughly enjoyed it!” and “Thanks so much for the recommendation!” I’ve always had a hard time coming to terms with disappointing people I respect. Lying was much easier.

Well, as luck would have it, two years later I found myself a freshman in college sitting through syllabus day for Introduction to Design Theory or something to that affect. Lauren McDermott, (or just Lauren, because that’s one of the perks of higher education), was a senior faculty member in the School of Architecture and Design. She passed around her one-page requirements for the semester, noting in quick succession the items we would need to purchase over the weekend. In bold type at the top of the page was a reading list, and at the top of that list was Pirsig’s Zen. I hoped my capacity for mental cognition had improved in the past 18 months.

The second time went much smoother. Maybe it was a small dose of growing up that did the trick, or maybe I just felt more pressure to actually understand what Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was truly getting at so I could hold my own in an intellectual duel with my classmates. Either way, I finished the book in a few short sittings, filling up the margins with notations and highlights much in the same way Nordy had done all those years ago.

Zen is easily one of my favorite reads all these years later, and a novel I go back to with regularity to reboot my train of thought. It’s probably the book I’ve recommended most, and like all great pieces of literature, it’s themes are just as pertinent now as they were back when it was first published in 1974.

If you’re still on the fence, here are a few of my favorite excerpts to whet your appetite…

“My own opinion is that the intellect of modern man isn’t that superior. IQs aren’t that much different. Those Indians and medieval men were just as intelligent as we are, but the context in which they thought was completely different. Within that context of thought, ghosts and spirits are quite as real as atoms, particles, photons and quants are to modern man.”

“A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance.”
“The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. “Art” when it is opposed to “Science” is often romantic.”
“The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws – which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behavior.”

“He felt that institutions such as schools, churches, governments and political organizations of every sort all tended to direct thought for ends other than truth, for the perpetuation of their own functions, and the for the control of individuals in the service of these functions.”

 “When analytical thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process. That is fairly well understood, at least in the arts. Mark Twain’s experience comes to mind, in which, after he had mastered the analytic knowledge needed to pilot the Mississippi River, he discovered the river had lost its beauty. Something is always killed. But what is less noticed in the arts – something is always created too. And instead of just dwelling on what is killed it’s important also to see what’s created and to see the process as a kind of death-birth continuity that is neither good nor bad, but just is.”

"But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory.”

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