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Friday, 27 December 2013

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig


My review: 3.5/5
I wrote this review in May 2013 but I have decided to post it now in my best friend’s request. He recommended me this book.  If it was just me in the bookshop or in the library and came across with a book ‘Zen and the Art of motorcycle maintenance’, I wouldn’t have read it. I told him- ‘It sounds like a book for boys’ but immediately I regretted. I don't like it when someone discriminates between boys and girls but I was doing it myself there. My parents have always told me that I am their son, not daughter. That is sort of inspiration and of course, just by saying that motivates me to do something normal girls would hesitate to do.

Actually, first 10-20 pages, I found this book quite boring and I took a month break from it. I told my friend- ‘I don’t think I will finish it’ and he wasn’t happy with it and told me- ‘this book is very difficult and not everyone can survive it’. Then, what else? I had to read it, just to compete with myself. That’s one of my qualities. Until now, I used to say, I like this quality of myself, but now, Phaedrus has made me think, what exactly is the quality I am talking about here? 

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance is a philosophical book (actually nothing about motorcycle maintenance), narrated by author during his 17-day tour on his motorcycle from Minnesota to Northern California with his son, Chris. Author’s close friends John and Sylvia Sutherland join them the first nine days of the trip. During the trip, author introduces many philosophical discussions into the characters by giving an example of a person called Phaedrus. Later it was discovered that Phaedrus was actually a narrator himself in past. He was a college teacher of creative and technical writing, whose unusual beliefs about ‘Quality’ drives him insane and furthermore changes his personality permanently. I found the book really interesting when the author starts talking about the difference between classic and romantic qualities. I had never understood the real meaning of them. The two types of personalities are described in the book this way: Classic, who seek to understand the details and master the mechanics, and romantic who only perceive outer look. Phaedrus described romantic knowledge as the leading edge of the train of knowledge that keeps the whole train on track. So, you can only be classic if you are romantic.

The first impression of the book: it took me back to my time in Nepal when I used to hang out in scooter. I loved my scooter but I never looked at the maintenance side of it. I don’t think I ever thought about maintaining my own scooter like a narrator is doing here. I was more like John, not interested to learn how to maintain it but expecting everything to be ready for me. When problems occurred, I was forced to rely on professional mechanics to repair it, exactly like John.  Now, I have seen the different side of the life that I hadn’t seen yet.

I remember, when I broke the news that I want to be an Engineer, my colleague had said, -‘You will be an average Engineer because Engineering is a guy thing’. I was angry at that time. Even though I didn’t say anything to him, inside, I had vowed to prove him wrong. That story reminds me of the story of nuclear fission, which was discovered by Lise Meitner in 1938. Her intelligence was ignored just because she was a woman and the Nobel Prize on her discovery was rather given to her male colleague, Otto Hahn. This is 21st century. Now, women can speak up and compete with men. Nevertheless, it wasn’t that easy for me. I remember my undergraduate time in Manchester; I don’t remember how I survived that era. I kept thinking, why we need to give exams? Who made this system? All those memories came back to me when I read about Phaedrus’s vision on examination. Just like him, I once used to think that students should be graded based on what they learn from school, not on what they write on exams because examination may not be an efficient way of quantifying one’s knowledge. Even if there is an exam, it should be just like Medical school, pass or fail, nothing like first class or upper second lass or lower second class but having said that, I am not sure I would be happy with that decision. I am a very competitive person. I guess this kind of personality is explained well by Phaedrus as ‘Gumption’, something you are born with or have acquired as a result of good upbringing. I have never been happy with my academic result. I have mourned even when I got first class or highest in the class because I am usually competitive to myself. I remember when I started ‘Global Challenges of Poverty’ course, I was very enthusiastic in the beginning but towards the end, I couldn’t give it much time and at some point, I just wanted to get 50% to get a certificate. So, in that condition, I wonder what I would have done if there was no examination. May be I would have just dropped out in the middle. I guess examination is necessary but we need to be creative, which means we need quality because quality is creativity.

So competition was there in my mind like a ghost, or in Philosopher Kant’s term, Priori knowledge, which you don’t see, neither do you hear it, smell it, taste it or touch it. Thinking about Gumption, I remember gumption trap, which can be a cause of ego, anxiety, boredom and impatience. This reminds me of my own personality. I get bored easily and I worry a lot. I remember my college friends used to tell me that I am not normal when I am not stressed. So, I was a gumption trap victim. When I started my Maters’ dissertation, I struggled a lot. Being a Masters student, my supervisor expected me to be independent. I tried but struggled. I was sad and went to my supervisor. He was not happy with me. He had said- ‘Never run away from technology and it is not something you have switch and all you have to do is switch on and off. You have to be creative. You will be assessed on that’. I couldn’t work for 2 weeks. I was just stuck there. I needed a peace of mind and as author described in this book, ‘peace of mind’ can be achieved only if you build up a capability to understand technology and feels good about mechanical work. I worked on my weak points. Then I realised that all those time, I was being romantic, which means I was being static (only comfortable with what is known). I needed to response to quality by dynamic. That means, I had to learn to be classic. So, there I was! Next time I went to my lab, I was there with full motivation. I did true experiment, by keeping everything as it was but just changing myself to dynamic. As predicted, I survived.

While the course was hard, it helped me become confident and independent. Now, University life is over and I am neither happy nor sad. I miss all those beautiful days I spent with my friends. With all those memories, I am having exactly same feeling when narrator finished his motorcycle tour. Although focusing on destination keeps you on right track, all those ups and downs you come across in the journey are more memorable. Just like he highlighted-

‘Sometimes its little better to travel than arrive’