[This article was originally written by me on May 3rd 2005. I had lost my copy of the article, but on a whim I dug it up via WayBackMachine (what a internet stalwart!), as a missive from the past. Still a good book, naturally.]
‘NEVER JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER’. And yet how exactly does respond to a cover, and indeed title, like that? Incredulity, I’d expect, followed closely by intrigue. At least that’s how I approached it. Background is perhaps necessary.
I was recommended the book. It seems this book has a long tradition of being a book that people recommend to others, and I kind of like that - it ties in with the style of the writing. I was recommended it by two people within the same week, one a friend studying philosophy who raved that it had helped him understand his course again (or for the first time), and another who had himself been recommended it a month back by his friend. Of course, I just had to look up this book that everyone (it seemed) was talking about. Suddenly I had the sensation that I was entering into something bigger than myself - some massive, mysterious book cult.
Once I’d briefly glanced at that cover, and just about made out the quirky text (and re-read it to make sure), I hesitated before scrolling down to read the summary. I knew nothing about the book - my friends had both been anxious not to reveal anything - and I wondered whether it was a good idea to actually find out what other people felt it was about before reading it myself. So I remained blissfully ignorant and swiftly purchased it.
You might have noticed I’m skirting around the topic here. And for a few days prior to this, I’ve been skirting around the whole issue of writing about this at all. You’ll forgive me for wanting to do justice to such a brilliant book. If any judgments can be made at all, it seems best to ignore the ancient proverb, and judge this book precisely by its cover. As I reached the final sentence, I flipped the book over in my hands and re-read the title. What had first seemed a bizarre pairing of two totally unrelated subjects, something perhaps concocted to entice people to a dusty text, was, upon reaching the end of the book, rendered absolutely clear: a perfectly beautiful bannerhead for everything that Pirsig’s work stands for. It was a stunning moment. It would be impossible to explain just why this happens, so let that stand as a firm recommendation from me to you to read the book and find out. But now I want to talk about the book itself.
Zen is an interwoven text, sort of like a quilt, where each part is somehow connected to the rest even if you can’t see each individual fibre. The author describes it early on as a Chautauqua - “like the travelling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across American - this America - […] popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ear and thoughts of the hearer (sic).” (p.15) Zen is one man’s thoughts and opinions on life. Normally, given the current quality of similar projects, you’d be about to switch off. Pirsig acknowledges this here, and explains exactly what he wants to achieve. He wants to change minds. This is a passionate man on a mission, and his words are suitably intense, descriptive, powerful and often beautiful. At times his words are precise, as precise as words come, cleaving down to ideas about the words themselves - thoughts about thoughts. At other times his words are soft, broad but nimble brush strokes painting a sky and a road and a motorcycle and the journey ahead.
“I am happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all, and has an appeal because of just that. Tensions disappear along old roads like this. We bump along the beat-up concrete between the cattails and the stretches of meadow and then more cattails and marsh grass. Here and there is a stretch of open water and if you look closely you can see wild ducks at the edge of the cattails. And turtles…There’s a red-winged blackbird..” (p.11, 1999)
There are many strands to this book: a father and his son on a motorcycle journey across America. The father’s internal dialogue with himself about what he observes in the people and landscapes around him. A story of a troubled young philosopher’s studies. Stories about society. A story about a man unravelling his past. Stories about philosophy itself - from the ancient greeks to modern thinking. Zen is an epic, multi-layered journey through thoughts and feelings of thousands of years. What is most astounding is that some 30 years hence its release the words speak with the same potent clarity and hold the same resonance to modern ears. These varied stories and writing styles illustrate two different types of thinking, the subjective (or aesthetic), and the objective (or rational), and they are at the heart of Pirsig’s novel.
I feel I have to give something of a warning, too. This book won’t make great reading for everyone. Whilst its specific subjects are not mandatory touchstones for a reader - I have no inclination towards motorcycles, for example - the style of writing is probably one that will continue to divide audiences into love it/hate it camps of opinions. This is not a book whereupon every turn of the page yields another twist in a thrilling action adventure. At the risk of offending some - it’s operating on a different level. This is a story, or set of stories, that reward attention and patience and a relaxed mind. The title itself is something of a starting point for this demeanour - on first reading it reveals little and seems perfectly insurmountable. The mind goes blank. And then you’re ready to begin. Some of the ideas that Pirsig writes about are extremely complex, too. When I wrote in my opening post about this being the hardest book I’d ever read, I meant it - and I say that without hubris. There was a point in the story where I sat down one night in March - which now feels a ridiculously long time ago - and read to the end of a page, and then just sat there incredulous, just trying to fully comprehend an idea that felt like a series of Russian dolls unfolding in my mind. And sometimes I couldn’t read any more for a few days, because I wasn’t ready. So, it’s a book that rewards patient reading - but it really does reward it.
Ultimately, I felt uplifted by both the story itself, and the high respect that Pirsig has for his readers. He takes us very seriously, thinks we are intelligent, and pays us the compliment of believing that we can learn to fundamentally change all of our perspectives and experiences. Despite the minor caveat above, I would recommend this book to anyone.
link: Zen’ @ Amazon.co.uk