Penn State

Reg Adams - Associate Professor of Psychology, Penn State University Park

Book Title: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

Author: Robert M. Pirsig

Book Description:

I was introduced to this book by my high school Latin teacher one day after class. I don't know why he chose this book or me. The book had no relation to the subject of Latin nor to anything we were discussing in that class, insofar as I recall. But, I am so glad he recommended it to me.

This book is many things at once. It is a semi-autobiographical philosophical novel that grapples with distinctions between classical and romantic thought, art and science, and attempts to blur those distinctions. It is about a man searching for personal meaning and identity. It is about a father and a son. It is an inquiry into the notion of quality, how to achieve it, how to appreciate it. It is chock-full of insightful gems I will mine for years to come.

In one passage Phaedrus, the author's alter ego, describes his attempt to help a student overcome writer's block. The student plans to write a 500-word essay on the United States. Phaedrus narrows the assignment to their small town, then to the main street running through that town. Nothing. Finally, frustrated, he narrows it to a single brick on a single building. Flood gates open. He tries this approach with other students, having them write about a coin, about the back of their own thumbs. All become prolific. Narrowing their focus had the ironic effect of expanding their creative thinking. His conclusion: it was impossible for them to imitate. They were forced to say something original, building-one brick at a time-something uniquely their own. This insight remains invaluable to me as a teacher and researcher in a field where original thinking is part of the job description.

Perhaps my Latin teacher noticed me in the back of the room staring out a window, daydreaming (admittedly a frequent pastime for me), and thought this book might hook my intellectual curiosity and reel me in. If so, he was right (thanks Mr. Mann). In that same spirit, I recommend this book to anyone who ever gets lost in thought.

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