Long before reading this book, I was told that it requires patience, but that the payoff is good. I mostly agree with this, but I wasn’t as impressed with it as I thought I’d be. I wouldn’t even say my expectations were high. I just found this book to be dull during some of its crucial moments.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a fictional autobiography written in the first person. From the beginning, my main annoyance with this book was with the narrator. He seemed to possess a self-righteous, holier-than-thou attitude, evident by the way he used his three travel companions (Sylvia, John, and his son Chris) as examples of ‘lesser’ forms of thought. As the purpose of the book became more evident, however, the narrator did begin to explain the reasoning for his attitude towards others, but it made him no less unlikable.
The book starts off very slow. It isn’t until after the first hundred pages that it begins to pick up, and it was here that I began enjoying the book. At first, I feared that the whole book would be a rehash of their travels and the lessons learned along the way, but I was surprised at how deeply it delved into science and philosophy. It finally started to satisfy my intellectual curiosity. The purpose of the whole thing begins to reveal itself around here too. You start to see the function that John and Sylvia play, and you start to realize the relationship between the mysterious Phaedrus and the narrator.
Unfortunately, the book begins to stagnate again about halfway through as the narrator drones on about esoteric philosophical concepts and how it all relates to motorcycle maintenance. I understood that motorcycles were just a stand-in or metaphor for everyday life, but he really could’ve spared some of the details. Not only that, but the narrator continued to be unlikable, especially in the way that he interacted with his son. From here on out the plot is a rollercoaster of interesting philosophy and dry technical details (I must primarily be a romantic thinker, according to Phaedrus). But like I was told before, the payoff at the end is worth the journey, and I think this sort of story arc was intended by the author. Mostly I was happy to see the relationship between the narrator and his son addressed. It’s probably no coincidence that he left this until the end.
Overall, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was an intense foray into the insanity of an intellectual mastermind. Each dull segment was met with deep insights about modern society, leaving me with some lessons learned, but I was relieved when it was over. Despite my annoyances, I do think that this is a book I will revisit in the future, mainly for the sake of understanding more of the philosophical history presented in it. I’m sure there are important lessons I missed too.
P.S. My copy of the book ended with an Afterword by the author. In it, he recounts the murder of his son in real life. While this was tragic to suddenly learn, I was put off by the author’s mention of the murderers’ race, which was black. I don’t know why he had to mention that detail. The book was written in the ’70s and the Afterword ten years after that, so the political atmosphere was obviously different, but as a black man myself, it seemed unnecessary. That is all.