If you had to pick a handful of books from world literature that were all-time great cult classics, what would they be? If you’d ever heard of it, the chances are that you would include Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a huge tome that seeks to unite Eastern and Western thought over the story of a man suffering a terrible emotional breakdown. It’s distinctly autobiographical, with the philosophical wrestlings embedded in an ongoing account of a road trip the narrator (and indeed author) took with his son, and it is undoubtedly one of those utterly distinct and eccentric books whose outrageous ambition is rewarded with partial success. Reading Polaris’s beautiful account of his experience of this book brought back to me my own encounter with it, over sixteen years ago.
At the time of reading it, I had not long graduated and was working for the book printing company. My first year out of university, my first experiences of financial independence, that sense of having finally hatched from the egg. And yet it was a year that seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of my life. I lived at that point in a way I had never done before, nor ever really would again, and one of the notable differences about that year was that it contained hardly any books – four, I think, over its entire course. But it was a time in which I had temporarily abandoned the life of the mind, as it was squeezed out by the tedium of a nine to five office job, one in an ugly, sprawling building containing the steely basilisks of printing presses that snaked their way in roaring, churning confusion across a huge factory floor. Every evening, when the hands of the clock struck five thirty, I would accompany all the other single members of the office (and some of the married ones, too) to the nearest pub, where I’d stay until hunger forced me to my lodgings. It was a life that was nominally full of event, but which seemed to me empty inside. The most complicated tasks I had to do were to work the photocopier, look lively at nine in the morning and stave off the libidinous advances of some of our revered customers; I was quite actively alarmed that my brain might be atrophying, but I assumed at the time that it was the way adults lived.
I’d been recommended the book by the man I’d later marry, whose uncle had read it and declared it had changed his life. This is never a good way to introduce a book. I often hesitate now over my own enthusiastic reviews as an emotionally charged build-up can often ruin the reading experience. I was in the mood for epiphanies and revelations, now I finally had my hands on the life I fondly imagined I had been trained up for, over the long years of education. And the novel ought to have struck more of a chord with me than it did, as its awkward union of philosophy and painful lived experience indicates if nothing else that what we most quickly lose sight of, in the bruising tumult of life, is the purest of our educational lifelines. But as an experience, I wanted something very different to the reality of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, something more emotionally charged than its lengthy accounts of Western philosophy, something less disturbing than its shocking representation of a man in the mire of existential confusion. Now I look back on it, I’d say that the problem with the book is that it never manages to become a novel. It’s a hybrid text that has three disparate stories to tell, the motorcycle trip, the breakdown, the history of man’s attempts to find meaning, and my memory that they never quite manage to come together is probably accurate, simply because any such union would be false. The good and the bad parts of our lives do not interlock with reassuring neatness across the course of a lifetime; instead they sit together in heterogeneous disarray, elbowing one another like distant ancestors told to bunch up tight for a family photograph. And the theory so painstakingly carved out of the recalcitrant matter of existence in order to reveal its truth can never really provide more than a backdrop, a curtain whose regular patterning only serves to emphasize the disorder up front. Pirsig’s book is a long, meandering search for an idea that will finally bring everything together, a single thought or guiding principle that will replace the chaos of a disturbed mind. He eventually presents this notion as ‘quality’, a way of being to strive for and a form of intellectual justification. When I finally reached this point I was most annoyed, as an idealistic, 22-year-old product of an educational system that promoted nothing less than perfection. Did this mean to say I had struggled through over 500 pages to be told something I already knew?
It took me three months to read that book, and I felt bemused and irritated in equal measure that I had allowed it to swallow up so much of my time. And yet in the six months that followed, I really did change my life. I took the decision to return to graduate studies, I quit the job, I made it clear to my boyfriend that we either regulated the relationship or went our separate ways. In each decision, I see the urge to combat the insidious messiness of life, its tendency to pull you off course and make you go along with the second-rate, the unexamined choices, the emotional confusion. I now see those decisions as being each one a vote for quality of life. At the time I didn’t make any connection between my actions and reading the book, and to be honest, I don’t think there was one, beyond their coincidence in time and space. I knew already that some sense of quality was what I wanted to strive for in life, and the novel did nothing more than perhaps remind me of that. But looking back on those events today, what strikes me most is that Pirsig is right, that change – and to some extent the making sense of life that inevitably accompanies it – is indeed a journey, but never the one you think you are taking. Change is what happens in the background, while you are looking the other way. Real change is invisible, until you suddenly find yourself making that phone call, packing your bags, standing up to your boss, compelled by forces that may have nagged in the back of your mind but which never really threatened such purpose of action. I still wonder what the history of Western philosophy has to do with it all, and it would be interesting to reread the book now, for what I imagine would be a much more attentive analysis on my part. But I’d never go back to it; it was a strange, unclassifiable book in a year that felt like an anomaly, and given its message of fraught synthesis, that seems just right to me.
If anyone else feels like writing about a book that ought to have changed their lives and didn’t, I’d be delighted to hear about it….