Sunday, March 8, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

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A Review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig by Nate Portney

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" is a fantastically well conceived book by Robert M. Pirsig, author of the subsequent work "Lila: An Inquiry into Morals".

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance he presents a part-fiction part-fact account of a motorcycle journey through the back-roads of America during which an array of philosophical issues are raised and discussed that question many of the notions which we take for granted such as the fundamental way in which we perceive the world, be it "romantically" or "classically".

The journey unfolds gradually alongside the philosophy with the two interspersing each other in order to keep the philosophy from getting too overbearing and the journey from becoming too tiresome. Although the book can be read by one who is simply looking for a good travel story, it best serves those who wish to read a little philosophy alongside a more traditional tale.

The structure works excellently to keep the novel fresh at all times, with the constant breaking between narration and discussion making for a continually rewarding read. However, this alone does not account for what makes the novel so fantastic. Although the structure does play a significant role in the readers' experience, it is the manner in which Pirsig manages to present his ideas and carry out his discussions and inquiries into philosophical dilemmas that really brings the work to life.

There is a delightful contrast between scenes of nature and discussions of philosophy which are somehow married together in such a way as to inform one another. Whilst moments of natural beauty are often noted during the journey these seem to supplement the complex philosophical discussions, and likewise the complex discussions give a sense of greater meaning to the natural observations.

The concept of analytical thought is frequently brought up and the sense one gets is that the natural observations come through an underlying analytical thought process which sees beauty in the clever workings of systems rather than the purely aesthetic beauty of, say, the sun setting.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of this philosophical novel is the characters themselves who make the inquiries all the more interesting through their personalities. The main character's son provides a childlike questioning which brings out some of the finer nuances in the discussions whilst the other two riders provide opposing viewpoints for the main character to wrestle with. This results in a great deal of interesting dialogue between the various characters that mimics the classic philosophical dialogues of Berkeley and Plato amongst others.

Pirsig's achievement is the way in which he has managed to make philosophy interesting to the masses whilst adapting a traditional method of philosophical writing and making it something enjoyable to read. Philosophical dialogue has rarely been this good and neither has a novel been so well structured as to captivate the reader this thoroughly at all times. This is a must-read for anyone with an inquisitive mind or anybody who can appreciate a finely crafted piece of literature.

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