The narrator and his son Chris go on a motorcycle trip across America, while going on a philosophical journey of many different themes, such as Quality and Identity.
I would give this book 3 stars (out of 5). This book is a combination of a Chautauqua in which the narrator recounts the philosophy of his past-self called Phaedrus and a typical story of a father and his son, Chris (age 11), traveling across America on a motorcycle. In this review I will give a very brief summary of the book, both the plot and the Chautauqua portion, and also talk about all the things that stood out to me and my thoughts and opinions.
The story begins with the start of the narrator and Chris’s trip across the country, at first accompanied by friends John and Syliva. The narrator and Chris go from state to state, they visit some places and people that the narrator used to know, before he was previously admitted to a mental hospital and underwent shock therapy that erased most of his memories, which is why he’s retelling the story of Phaedrus. Throughout their travels they hike up mountains, visit lakes and national parks, and eventually reach the ocean, but that is only half the journey.
The real journey takes place in the Chautauqua, where the narrator breaks down and explains a wide variety of topics. The most important ones are Quality and Romantic vs. Classical thinking. The difference is that classical thinkers approach life with an analytical mindset, they see the world as its primary underlying form, the function and what it can do. While romantic thinkers see the world in terms of immediate appearance, they see what the thing is.
Another division that goes hand-in-hand with the romantic/classic divide is that of art vs. technology, John and Syliva hate technology in all forms (they refuse to do even the slightest repairs on their own motorcycle) and favour art. This is the opposite of the narrator, who sees beauty in motorcycle maintenance and generally believes technology is a form of creativity and art. These divisions were best demonstrated by a moment in chapter 5 when John needed to repair something on his motorcycle that required a shim. John asked the narrator where he could buy one and the narrator proudly showed him a beer can, which can easily be used as a shim. But because John is a romantic thinker, he only sees the ugly and unprofessional appearance of a beer can and is put off by it. Even though from the narrator’s perspective it’s the perfect shim because it’s very functional, while being cheap and easily acquirable.
The most important subject covered in this book is Quality. Phaedrus spent a long time pondering what Quality is and why it’s important. Phaedrus initially tried to define Quality and then realized he couldn’t, everyone can recognize Quality or tell whether one thing is better or worse than the other, but defining what makes the difference (on a general scale) is impossible. Quality isn’t subjective or objective, it’s undefined.
An introductory quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on Quality: “Quality—you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.” – Narrator on Quality, Chapter 15
In Phaedrus’s view of reality Quality is the fundamental form that allows all things to exist, both the subject and the object can’t exist without the Quality present in the relationship between the two. There could be no mechanics if there wasn’t any Quality in the relationship between the mechanic and the motorcycle. If the work you’re trying to do isn’t working well it isn’t necessarily that you’re doing it wrong, it’s that you lack that Quality that should be the basis of the subject-object relationship and you should work on improving your mindset and approach to the work.
“The real [motor]cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.” – Narrator, Chapter 26
Phaedrus’s understanding of Quality is that it’s the source of all human knowledge and experience, and it transcends dualism (like classic vs. romantic or art vs. technology, and subject-object).
Some of his other beliefs are that Isaac Newton invented gravity and it didn’t exist before that invention, that reason and laws of science are ghosts because they don’t contain matter or energy and they only exist within the human mind and that the school system is deeply flawed for conditioning students to work for degrees and grades above actual learning.
I have a lot of thoughts about this book but one thing that should be noted is that I read this in a novel study in my Philosophy class, which has definitely impacted my reading experience, how deeply I engaged with certain topics, and how much time while reading I was slightly panicked because I had homework and deadlines and I couldn’t just read it at my own pace.
I found the general tone, mood and pacing of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to be a bit boring and slow for my taste. This is probably because it’s written in a style that’s similar to nonfiction and also for a primarily older audience, but there were many times while reading that I either just couldn’t make it through a chapter because it was so boring or I was so confused I had to stop reading. The writing style doesn’t keep you engaged, even throughout individual chapters, and the Chautauqua and the actual description of the story have the exact same tone. So even when he’s describing the weather it feels the same as when he’s explaining an intense philosophy concept. Due to this tone and pacing, reading this book feels like it takes a lot longer than it actually does, and this was one of the main issues I had with it.
Another main issue is its portrayal of mental health and illnesses and the fact that it doesn’t have a trigger warning. There are many potentially triggering topics such as suicide, electroshock therapy, and mental hospitals. The book starts off very chill and there’s no indication of this subject matter until it comes up in the story. I especially think this is important in a classroom setting, like the one in which I read this book, because serious topics like suicide can have extreme impacts on student’s lives and isn’t something they should have to relive without warning or need to in order to do well on the classwork based on the novel.
Personally I think it just portrays mental illness badly. I know it was written at a time in history where there was a lot of stigma and very little actual understanding both in the general public and in professionals, compared to today. However, I think it’s still important to point out that this book throws around the term insane and makes generalizations, and it can be very confusing at times because a character who was literally court ordered to be in a mental hospital won’t let his son Chris see a psychiatrist because he doesn’t believe in it ot trust it.
At one point in chapter 5 the narrator even unvalidated Chris by saying, “That’s a child-psychology term – a context I dislike. Let’s just say he’s being a complete bastard.” And later in chapter 31 saying, “All these troubles are in your mind. They seem real and feel real but they aren’t.”
My overall opinion on this is that it’s caused by a combination of how things were at the time and the author’s own inability to accept the validity of mental health issues. But I think all that’s really necessary is a trigger warning at the beginning, as my main concern is people reading this with no idea it contains mentions of suicide and other alarming situations or people having to read about those topics, even if it could negatively affect them.
How the narrator handled explaining different cultures’ beliefs was an issue brought up at multiple times during class discussions. There were a lot of really broad generalized statements that were pretty clearly meant to simply explain certain cultural differences but definitely came off as racially insensitive. I know that at the time this book was written there were different societal norms but that doesn’t make it okay. As well as some observations of the reader speaking differently when reading quotes from people of different races in the audiobook version. Some examples of this were quotes like:
“It is not uncommon, he said, for Indian villagers to see ghosts. But they have a terrible time seeing the law of gravity.” – Chapter 20
“Science isn’t a part of the Indian [Native American] tradition.” – Chapter 3
Quotes like this were a major discussion point in my ‘book club’ group. I think the main reason was that we’re all gen z and feel like these statements make generalizations and imply other cultures are wrong and not just different.
This book can also be interpreted many different ways, especially the ending because I interpreted the ending differently than a lot of people and I think some of my strongest feelings in relation to this book are about how other people somehow managed to get drastically different interpretations of the same text. (Although I won’t get into them here as it contains major spoilers.)
Overall I do feel like reading this book was a valuable experience for me because it taught me some new concepts and I questioned a lot of things that I’d never considered before. I honestly would not recommend reading it just for fun, but if you’re interested in learning a bit more about philosophy and exploring your own beliefs I think this could be a really beneficial read!