Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I’ve read about half of this book in the last couple of weeks, and I think I might be done with it. It’s well-written no doubt, and I think that’s why I’ve stuck with it this long.

It’s about a father, his young son, and two friends (a married couple) who go on a cross-country motorcycle trip. Along the way, he ponders eastern philosophy, and now-cliche ideas about the ills of technology, and “getting away from it all,” through the lens of different things that happen to his motorcycle. (And like anyone in 1974 knew really knew  anything about ‘technology’…please).

I picked it up, because I thought the premise was similar to my own novel that I am currently editing….a road trip where one spends a lot of downtime pondering spiritual truths.

That is what this book is, but I thought it would be more novel than philosophy. As it turns out, it’s the other way around. It’s more philosophy than novel, and at times, the author totally abandons the plot and gives us a straight out philosophy lesson for a good half a chapter or so. I found myself getting bored with his pondering, and wondering about what was going on with the characters.

When you’ve got such heady philosophy, you’ve got to break it up with good plot to give the truths a chance to sink in. He does that to some extent, and I thought the whole Phaedrus plotline was interesting.

But I think the turning point for me in the book, was when the author straight out says, “If I were a novelist, I would develop these characters more…” and then give us a lame reason as to why the characters were flat. The characters had asked him to respect their privacy by not making them a “character, an accessory in a book.  We aren’t ‘characters,’ we are people.”

If this were non-fiction, I could understand. But, for a novel, that’s just lame. (Deus ex machina). And not only that, it says straight out to the reader, the story is not important to me. Only the lessons. So, then why should I invest in liking your characters?  Write a straight up philosophy book then.

The other thing is, having a ridiculously strong Christian background (Christian schools, Christian university, several years in full-time ministry…)  the whole technique he is using is a bit played. It’s something we do in Christianity all the time. Taking something ordinary, and analyzing the parts and processes to find spiritual truth. We do this, because spirituality is so complex and abstract, that the only way can really understand it, is to filter it through something we do understand.

That’s what he is doing here– breaking down motorcycle maintenance, and using it to reveal truths on eastern philosophy. And, really, I’m not impressed, because, you can find spiritual/philosophical truths in literally ANYTHING. Seriously. ANYTHING.

I guess maybe I ‘m just not in the right frame of mind for it. Maybe another time, when I’m in a more reflective time of life, I would think differently about it. I guess that’s with any book, it has to hit you at the right time.


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