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June 4, 2009

…Zen Again

Filed under: 150 Best Minnesota Books — Pat Coleman @ 5:16 pm


We joked awhile ago that any Minnesota author or book to make the cover of Time Magazine is automatically on our list. Let’s say the same thing for any Minnesota author or book the makes it into the Guinness Book of World Records.

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: Morrow, 1974.

Pirsig’s philosophical/autobiographical novel is listed in Guinness as the bestseller most rejected by publishers; 121 to be exact. When Morrow accepted the manuscript they were either very lucky or smart enough to know what Pirsig knew, that after the decade of the Sixties society and our culture was aching for just this philosophical discussion. It was time for what Pirsig called his “culture-bearing book.” For Morrow’s $3,000 they got a book that sold over 4 million copies and the sales of rights to translate ZMM into 27 languages. If you were around in 1974 you know what a publishing phenomena the book became. It went into the back pocket of almost every pair of torn jeans on campus.

The book is still a valuable and worthwhile read as its many anniversary editions attest and it is only slightly dated. I did cringe every time the word “groovy” was used.

The meat of the book is an attempt to unify the seeming rift – exacerbated by the political and cultural conflict of the 1960s – between the classic and romantic [or square and hip; technological and humanistic; Lori and Pat] ways of looking at the world. Quality, he concludes, is what those word views have in common.

Noting that it is difficult to jump into the middle of this book without the author’s careful set up, here is a sample of his prose:

…care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristics of Quality.

Thus, if the problem of technological hopelessness is caused by absence of care, both by technologists and anti-technologists; and if care and Quality are external and internal aspects of the same thing, then it follows logically that what really causes technological hopeless is absence of the perception of Quality in technology by both technologists and anti- technologists.

Mercifully the philosophy is broken up by the bones of the story, a 1968 motorcycle road trip Pirsig took with his son Chris, two friends and a ghost named Phaedrus, who is Pirsig’s pre electro-shock therapy self.

One note: ZMM contains two sentences that could or should be the motto of our book blog:

“What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.

One complaint: I read ZMM in the 1984 “A Bantam New Age Book” edition (note the silly logo from the back cover), painfully slogging through terrible quality printing ironically reading hundreds of pages of discourse on the theme of “Quality.” At times the book is almost illegible. The letters in this edition bleed together and the ink is not even uniformly distributed on the same page. It drove me crazy! I hope these New Age publishers come back in their next life as Harp seals in Newfoundland.

The only thing good about this particular edition is the “Afterword” by the author with his heartbreaking account of Chris’s death outside the Zen Center in San Francisco in 1979.

Zen paperZen paper back

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6 Responses to “…Zen Again”

  1. Lori Says:

    I may be square, but you hip?

  2. Alan Says:

    I read that same crummy ‘84 edition, but was young enough not to see the irony, thank you for putting your finger in it! In the many years intervening, I have to say I continue to recall and consider the “what is best” concept when someone asks me “What’s new?”

  3. Ulster Says:

    A wag claims the ZMM should be in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the most started/least finished book. I believe that title goes to Joyce’s Ulysses.

    Patrick Coleman reply on June 16th, 2009:

    Thanks Ulster and Happy Bloomsday!

  4. Ulster Says:

    say, one irish/minnesota book you should think about for your best 150 mn books list is dillon o’brien’s first book “the dalys of dalystown” 1866. ps: i heard you did a great job reading from the library chapter of “ulysses” at the campus club on bloomsday!

  5. Ulster Says:

    Sorry I keep coming back to this post but I just read Oxford evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawson’s “The God Delusion” where he quotes Pirsig from “Zen…” saying “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion”. How true!

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