It’s nearly 8pm on a sticky June evening, and I don’t really feel like writing a post, but if I leave it until the weekend, my usual posting time, I will have forgotten the impression I was left with upon finishing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I have no tea nor cup of soup to accompany my writing, but I was at a wedding out of town this weekend, which threw me right off schedule, so I feel that I should catch up now.
I just finished Zen this evening, and I must say, despite my enthusiasm all throughout the reading (which seemed like the something that would never end!), I found the last few chapters oddly muddled and disappointing. As I wrote in an earlier post, this book was first published in 1974, after being turned down by 121 publishers. It went on the become a bestseller, and has been named an American cultural icon in literature. This autobiographical book follows the narrator on a 17-day motorcycle journey across America, from Minnesota to Northern California, with his son Chris and his friends John and Sylvia, although they leave half-way through the journey to return home. It is a philosophical exploration into quality and values, and mirrors the author’s own life as he tries to discover his former self, whom he refers to in the book as Phaedrus, the personality he had before he went insane and underwent electroconvulsive therapy treatment. It seems to follow three strands of narrative: the first is the motorcycle journey, including the narrator’s relationships with his son and his friends John and Sylvia, and his search for value and connection in a society that seems disconnected and hurried. His exploration into classical and romantic attitudes towards life are also compared and contrasted. The second is his discourse on philosophy. And the third is his search for his former self, all but forgotten after his ECT treatment. I was really enjoying it, and my copy of the book is filled with sticky-note flags marking poignant passages that I felt were significant enough to change my life. I even used different-coloured flags for passages that were especially significant; for example, while climbing a mountain during a hike with Chris, the narrator notes that you should take your time and notice the little things, like the different colours and shapes of the leaves: “To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.” Further on, he mentions the “gorgeous” girl behind the counter at a restaurant they stop at, and the way some of the other customers were noticing her, too. He says, “We keep passing through little moments of other people’s lives.” These are words that mean something, that speak to me personally. But near the end, he gets too much into the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, and Socrates, all the while exploring his own personal past breakdown, and I became totally lost. Then, with practically no explanation at all, it was over. The “Afterward”, too, felt forced, and while the ending did answer some of the questions and wrap up the loose ends of the three narrative strands, it was somewhat anti-climactic, at least for this reader. Having said that, I’m so glad I read it for a number of different reasons. I felt that it gave me so much insight into various ways to live better, appreciate more fully, and choose wisely. I can now also cross this title off my list of “Books I’ve been meaning to read for years but have never made the time to do so”. And I can, with a clear conscience, pass my copy on to someone else, making room on my bookshelf for other books. So, in short, I would recommend this book, but don’t think you can read it in a few sittings, and try to take lessons from it as you go, in case the ending is a disappointment for you, too.
That’s all for today. I look forward to getting back to my regular posting schedule.
Bye for now…