“We’re all one head injury away from being someone else.” -quote from a book about the brain I have forget all of but this line.
I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about thirty years ago. At about the same time I read If You Meet The Buddha On the Road Kill Him. Another very interesting book. I remember enjoying Zen and it’s tale of a madman traveling around the Northwest with his son riding along behind him on his trusty motorcycle. I mainly remembered a scene near the start of the book about a clumsy mechanic who claims his motorcycle had a problem with it’s tappets, and then makes a big mess out of what should have been a simple repair.
The bulk of the book deals with our hero’s former self, a fellow who was obsessed with the discovery of some higher form of Philosophy, a search for the one great Truth of Quality. Here we wade in over our heads into the swaps of wisdom, truth, justice, and reality itself. There is talk of Aristotle and Socrates and Sophists and the creation of a whole new school of philosophy. All of this sounds like both common sense and complete bullshit. And that is the wonder of Zen and the Art.
Mixed in with the deep thoughts are the more mundane aspects of changing your oil on a regular basis, keeping the moving parts clean, and how to camp on abandoned logging roads. He goes into some detail on how mood effects the work. How being tired effects the work. How being happy effects the work. He finds joy in small things. It’s hard to tell if this is because of his Zen attitude or because of his electroshock lobotomy. He can’t really remember the man he was before, but he knows that he is a different man now.
Something I’m not sure I noticed on my first reading is the liberal and generous use of 1960s slang. Cool and Square and Groovy and With It and countless other little bits of Hippyspeak pop up on a regular basis. At first it’s kind of funny, but over the course of the book this use of nonsense words as he struggles mightily with the Great Truths is kind of distracting.
Something else that occurred to me as our hero talks about being a radical teacher who appears to be a bit ahead of his time. I was reminded of The Dead Poets Society. Here the teacher fighting the System loses and is locked away and his mind, the very thing that made him great, is taken away from him.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a brilliant book because it does what so few books are able to do, it makes you stop for a moment and think. Having been a bit bipolar myself over the years, I have to wonder what would have happened if someone had locked me away and changed the essence of my being. Of course, our hero says in the epilogue that what was done to him is now against the law.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of those books that was rejected by a lot of publishers, 121, before being accepted. It is an odd read and does take a lot winding trails…but it is well worth reading.