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Sandor Dargo
Sandor Dargo

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Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

During the last couple of years, I started to attend and present at more and more C++ conferences. Inevitably, I ended up listening to Phil Nash several times and he almost always spoke about something closely related to software quality.

In these talks, he often mentioned Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which sometimes even gave the title of his talks.

First of all, thank you Phil for the recommendation! It's a great book! Or it would be more appropriate to say that you recommended great books as Pirsig's second book, Lila is also something quite fascinating.

But let's talk first about the Zen book. What it is about? It's not really about Zen and not really about motorcycle maintenance, but both appear in the book.

It's mostly about two things. The book's subtitle is An Inquiry Into Values, Pirsig tries to define what quality is. That's why this book inspired so many talks on software quality!

In the end, Pirsig says that quality is undefinable, but it's easy to recognize. You know you stumbled upon something of quality when you see it. But this doesn't mean that quality doesn't have characteristics or different types. In this book, he differentiated between classical and romantic quality.

Classical quality is mostly about the engineering aspects of things, it's about how things work. Whereas romantic quality is about the design, the aesthetics of things. It's about how things are begin used.

Both aspects are important and ideally, you have both kinds of quality.

I said earlier that the book is about two things. One was quality. What it's the other? What gave the frame to such philosophical discussions in the book?

First of all, these were not always discussions, often the main character was thinking alone during a motorcycle trip while another couple were on their own bike and his son was sitting behind him. Or while the others were sleeping.

That main character is Pirsig himself. This book is sort of autobiography and a quite heavy, a quite stressful one. It starts all nice, with a motorcycle trip. His friend who came with his own more fancy bike that he never adjusts, he lets the garage do the maintenance. Pirsig, on the other hand, takes maintenance into his hands.

It all started for him because of "professionals" in a bike repair shop who made more harm than good. Apparently, the untrusthiness, unreliability of the craftsmen is not limited to certain ages and geographical areas. From then on, he does whatever he can on his own.

Pirsig is the engine of this vacation, he orders people to move, to wake up, to do things. On a vacation, sleeping is a waste of time as he says. I clearly see his point. You can take some days off to rest, but if you go away from home, why would you rest? You are there to see, to experience.

To see what is out there, but also to see, to experience your own internal world.

The more and more they go, the more Pirsig ponders on the quality, the more something strange comes up from the bottom of his soul. Dreams, mental images, mostly dark, someone behind a glass door, someone trying to break out a coffin. Phaedrus. His previous self.

Pirsig was diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with electroconvulsive therapy on numerous occasions. With the treatment that chased Hemingway into suicide. A treatment that took Pirsig's personality partly away. His son was still looking for his old father, the one he used to know.

By the end of the book, no matter how much Pirsig tried to resist, his son found this old personality.

I cannot give back his fears, his struggles that he shared along with the pages. They are deep, I highly recommend reading this book and pausing sometimes to look up the places he passed by. How the scenery changes, what kind of things they saw. They are beautiful.

In his second book, Lila, Pirsig is still on the move. That time on a boat going down from the Hudson River towards New York then to Florida. At the beginning of his book, he met with a troubled lady who reaches a complete mental breakdown by the end of the book.

This lady, Lila, inspires the events of this book and also the discussions on quality, on morals. Pirsig used this book to develop and document a complete metaphysical system based on the idea of quality introduced in Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Instead of breaking it down into classical and romantic categories, in this book he made the division between static and dynamic quality. He even broke down static quality into 4 subcategories; inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual, leaving dynamic quality undefinable.

But Pirsig is touching on other interesting topics in Lila, such as the critique of anthropology, the effects of Native Americans on modern American culture, the characteristics of the Victorian era and the other political/social movements that emerged in spite of it.

If you like Zen, after, you should definitely read Lila too.

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Shai Almog

Zen was my favorite book in my late teens. One of the main reasons I rode for so many years. I didn't connect as much to Lila back then but I guess it might have been my age. I don't want to reread them because I feel the original book might lose the magical feeling it has in my mind.

One thing I do remember is the discussion of mechanics/engineers who use technical language to create silos of expertise (he probably phrased it completely differently). I like that part quite a bit and try to keep my language clear and simple.