Monday, December 5, 2011

Catching Up with Robert Pirsig

I keep a small notebook full of titles that I intend to read. My list is a mishmash of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. One title that is not in that blue notebook is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. The book is older than my grown son, but somehow in the crush of living I have missed it again and again. Until my friend Synchronicity recently stood it facing out on a display in my local library. Well, my book bag was heavy but not full, so I casually added it to the week's collection. And I read it. No, that's not true. I read most of it, no, I read much of it. I skipped a lot of the philosophy. Sorry, Pirsig, but for me the relationship between the author and his young son is more compelling.

If you have not read this much loved book, do so. Check the Wiki listing for Pirsig to get a summary of his background if you're not sure about the content. The book is far too complex for me to summarize effectively, because it's not just about motorcycles, nor is it just about philosophy. In the course of a road trip from Minneapolis to San Francisco, Pirsig explains his life and his philosophy of Quality and the Good. I preferred reading his history of having been mistreated by a too extensive use of ECT, now regarded as a safe and effective treatment for mood disorders and some psychotic disorders. Having had his memory purposefully erased, Pirsig has to deal with the ghost of his former self and the fear that his son, Chris, will also suffer from mental illness. Their journey is not an easy one, but by the end they seem reconciled. In the postscript we learn that Chris was killed during a mugging just before his 23rd birthday. That's not fair. But it's true. Yeah, that sentence is a spoiler, but the book is not about sudden epiphany. It's about the inner life of a brilliant mind almost lost to illness and unwise treatment, about a father/son relationship that reveals more than we might know about our own family dynamics.

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