On Reading Zen

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….

21 thoughts on “On Reading Zen

  1. I must admit to being totally swayed by your review of this book. I remember loving the idea of it (when I read it as a student) but also finding it quite heavy going I suppose. I liked the idea of the journey and how the narrator’s emotional state matched the philosophical argument. But, like you, I doubt if I’d revisit it. I also like the idea of thinking about books that changed (or didn’t change) our lives.

  2. I must have read an abridged version. I don’t remember much at all about it, actually, other than I think I ‘liked’ it. Maybe I didn’t really read it, but read something else entirely. Great quote: “change is indeed a journey, but never the one you think you are taking”.

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that might change my life. Oh, wait a minute. On vacation two weeks ago, I met a massage therapist who handed me a book called Green for Life and said, “this will change your life.” Apparently, all you have to do is drink smoothies that are a mixture of fruit, water, and greens. I read the entire book with a margarita in one hand (the book was in the other). I’m going to give it a try and I will report back on the life changing bit.

    Until then, a most happy New Year to you, lovely litlove.

  4. Props to you, Litlove and Pete, for finishing the damn thing – I remember (with a flash of shame even now) giving up in frustration or boredom, a rare event once I’ve got a book in my hot little hands. Change my life it did not. I do wonder, every time I stumble across a reference to it, if I should try again, but I suspect I won’t. There’s too many other books in my path.

    On the other hand, I suppose it’s fair to say Underworld by Don DeLillo changed my life. At the time I read it, I was living in London, working a well-paid ‘fun’ job in ad sales (for Heat magazine, no less) that involved lots of entertaining of advertising account managers and very little intellectual rigour. I’d written an abysmal draft of an unreadable novel in Wandsworth the year before, and was by then living in Clapham Common “having it large” because it was easier than facing up to my failings as a writer. Lots of lager, lots of lard, lots of fags. I’d studied White Noise as an undergraduate, and written an essay on it that I actually enjoyed writing, so reading Underworld late in 2000 made it official: here was an author who spoke very clearly to me. And I decided I wanted – needed – to get myself off the ‘advertising account manager’ bandwagon before it was too late. I was careening down the wrong path, and picking up speed like a teen driver, so my decision to return to study seemed an urgent one. Oddly, I reinvented myself by owning up to the person I’d always been. I was back in Sydney by March 2001, and I enrolled in a doctoral degree the day I got off the plane.

  5. Alex – you are amazing, and thank you for that kind offer. I won’t take you up on that one as we do in fact have a copy already. But thank you so very much! Pete – when I was looking this book up on the internet, the group who loved it seemed to be young men (even teenagers), which makes me wonder whether it doesn’t have a quiet gender bias (motorbikes, road trips, male breakdown, Western philosophy). If you have a book that changed you life, do tell! Bkclubcare – I struggled to remember the details of it! It’s not a book that stays much in the mind, I think. Thank you so much for your kind comment! Dear Bloglily – thank you for that hilarious comment and a very happy new year to you, too! I shall be chuckling over that image of you reading a super-keen health guide with margarita in hand for the rest of the day! Doctordi – I don’t blame you for a moment for abandoning it – it’s that kind of book. Loved the story of you and Don Delillo, though – what a great life turnaround!

  6. Litlove – Just wanted to add that I’m reading “1000 Books to change your life” and the first chapter on birth and infancy written by journalist and writer Kate Clanchy really made me think of you. She tracks the absence of birth and infancy in “great” literature until the sudden importance it assumes in the last few decades of the 20th century, the mum-moir etc.

  7. I’m ashamed to admit I merely flicked through it back in my student days, when it was something cool that you had to read. I suspect as you do that it appealed more to male readers – the bike stuff left me a little cold.

    As for other life-changing tomes, I will have to give it some thought.

  8. Zen and TAOMM (Tao and M&M’s – hmmm) fitted into my hedonistic youth around the time I discovered Gibran, Kayyam, and de Saint-Exupéry. I wonder which one began my move from Christian to atheist, from dutiful son to rebel hippie. The first signs of the change appeared around a year after that surge of literature. Within three years I was marching against the war in Vietnam. The young lady who introduced me to all these books, and discussed them late into the night, is lost in the mists of time. Yet the influence remains. “Zen” is the only one I haven’t re-read.

  9. The title put me off, I don’t like motorcycles, its being read by so many covered me statistically from having to read it (ditto _National Geographic_, Tolkein, and every 19th century british novel), and I always think of Zen as being Buddhism for those who couldn’t succeed at the other kinds of Buddhism. (Reminds me of a story about Ezra Pound’s grandfather, I think it was, who chose to be Episcopalian because he didn’t want religion to interfere with his life.)

    Not meaning to be quarrelsome there.

    The book that changed my life was Henry Miller’s _Tropic of Cancer_. Read it at age 18, and never looked at literature the same again.

  10. Lovely post Litlove. I read the book way back in high school when I was 15. My teacher gave the class a list of books and we were each supposed to select one and read it outside of class and then write up a little something on it. I wanted to read Interview with the Vampire but one of my classmates got it before I did. I ended up with this one. I can’t say that I remember anything about it and my response to it was mostly confusion coupled with a deep desire to understand the meaning of it all. Ever since I thought I’d read it again someday. I still intend to.

    As for a book that changed my life, I can’t really name one. I am sure plenty of books have had an effect on my life. But as you said, change happens in the background and is often invisible so to be able to trace anything to a specific book I would find quite impossible.

  11. Pete – thank you so much! I’m going to read that chapter now today! Charlotte – if I hadn’t had such a strong recommendation, I would not have got very far with it! Archie – oh there are so many stories in that little snippet, n’est-ce pas? Who was the lady now in the mists? What happened on those marches? How did Saint-Exupery fit in with Gibran and Pirsig? Would I ever dare to risk a speculation on the teenage male mentality, rebellion and such life philosophy books? Not if I wanted to keep my male friends I wouldn’t, no. JB – I like the thought of you as a reader aiming to pay attention to the books that haven’t had their share of the limelight. It was thanks to you that I read Miller (and enjoyed it), and that’s a great Ezra Pound story. There’s a life I ought to look into one of these days. Stefanie – one day I’d like to know more about the reading choices you made in your teens. There’s such an intriguing literary history there, it seems! I can also see how it might have helped promote your interest in philosophy. But I do agree – it’s perhaps more likely to be a subtle combination of books that affects our thinking, and that over a period of time. I know I expected life to be more plot-driven than it is, and my own character to be more coherent than it is, and this for many years, thanks to the influence of literature! 🙂

  12. I read this one a while back — a few years ago maybe — and I found it interesting (the part on teaching writing was maybe the best for me — but not at all what I expected to find in that book! It shows what an odd hodge-podge the book is), but not life-changing in the least. I think it’s definitely a book that needs the right reader at the right time to be life-changing. If you are already of a philosophical bent and have thought about western or eastern philosophy already, it probably won’t do much.

  13. I detested this book but it took me all of my undergraduate years to admit it. It was the ‘cool’ book to read when I was in college and just about every boy I dated was impressed that I had it on my bookshelf. I attempted to read it about 10 times, but I never got further than the first few chapters. A few years ago, I found a tattered old copy in a box that hadn’t been unpacked through several house moves. I read the first several pages and thought “discombulated rubbish!” I know that many people are fanatical about this book, but it certainly never engaged me. Interesting that you write that you’d never go back to it. I think that this is one of those books that captures one’s attention when one is young. I can’t help but look quizzically at those who, years later, profess that this is the best book that they have ever read. But, like you, their experience may have been coincidental to the book. I think that for many, ‘life changing’ books may be like that: it isn’t the book so much as the circumstances that shadow how you relate to the book that make it memorable and a hallmark of a time when one’s life shifted and changed.

  14. Dorothy – I think you have it just right when you call it an odd hodge-podge of a book – that’s perfect! And I also agree that the ideas need to strike you for the first time. The right reader at the right point in their lives is definitely needed.

    Cam – it sounds like just having the book on your shelves was sufficient of itself! Some books you just need to possess to look cool to the audience, right? 😉 I also wondered a lot about my husband’s uncle after I’d read it… But I do agree. I don’t really think books change lives, although they may well influence your thought profoundly, and they might inspire you to travel or to study or to write yourself. But they are tremendously good for absorbing life tremors into their pages, and becoming deeply associated with memorable parts of one’s life.

    Catherine – I really liked your post and I’m awfully tempted to do something similar myself! I couldn’t agree more that self-help books could usually be boiled down to 100 words or so, the rest being examples!

  15. Thanks for these!

    “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.”


    “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.”

    “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.”

  16. I adored Zen, possibly because I never thought it was a novel; I thought it was an experiential memoir.

    There were many things I appreciated about it, but chief among them was the discussion of how our educational system doesn’t work. I dropped out of a top-ranking college for many of the same reasons that caused Pirsig to enter into a dissociated state of identity as a teacher, and so I related very deeply to that part of the book. I also related to what I read as a description of how awakening consciousness looks and feels like insanity, and how it is, in fact, a form of insanity until it is properly harnessed and applied.

    I think it’s one of those books that is life-changing when it happens to parallel and validate the reader’s own inner life, which in my case, it frequently did.

    I think the book most highly recommended to me which I disliked the most was “The Power of Now,” which I found to be unmitigated tripe of the first order.

  17. Openpalm – thank you, too! That’s so very nice of you to say so.

    David – There are many, many supporters of Zen, and I have to say a quick poll seems to indicate the majority are young men. I guess it’s the kind of book that speaks to a certain sort of male experience and to a certain sort of sensitive and intellectually-engaged male. And jolly good if that’s the case. No book is hidebound to please everyone, after all. The Power of the Now is new to me, but curiosity means I will have to look it up!

  18. Another lovely post. I return to this now because, when it was originally written, I was still in the middle of ZMM. Now, that I have finished it, I thought I’d go back to read what you thought of the book. I’ll write more about this in a post sometime, but I do agree with you about the book’s inability to tie its three threads together. (I’d actually add a fourth thread, which is the problematic relationship between Pirsig and his son Chris.) I knew where Pirsig was going before I read the chapter about the Tao Te Ching and felt that he would take me somewhere new. This wish was partly satisfied, and I guess that was just the thing the book was meant to do.

  19. Pingback: Flotsam from ZMM « Mirkwood

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