Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig, 2/5
Reading this philosophical novel was, for me, like trying to experience a song by simply reading the lyrics–I understood the words, but I couldn’t hear the “music.” I suspect this is due in part to my reflexive antipathy for the 1960s zeitgeist and a general shift away from academic thought in my life. However, I’d prefer to think that the fault is the author’s, for alternating arbitrarily-detailed descriptions of a motorcycle road trip with dry, preachy philosophical rants that fall into the trap described by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man:
“…But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see (81).”
In an attempt to understand my negative experience with such a popular, respected book, I read a lot of user reviews afterwards and learned more about the author. I now know that the book is highly autobiographical and wonder if my dislike of it reflects a basic personal incompatibility with the author/narrator and a recognition of how his pursuit of personal catharsis might taint the intellectual integrity of his arguments. I didn’t feel any sort of sympathy, connection or respect for the main character, suspecting that I would dislike him if I met him in person, which is certainly not a great basis on which to approach a book. With this understanding, I might re-read it in a few years and see if I can get something more out of it than I did this time.
Why I read it: I was browsing Half Price Books for reading material for a trip to Scotland and recognized the title.
Mr. Majestyk by Elmore Leonard, 3/5
This is no literary masterpiece, but it’s got a likeable good guy, a hot girl, a selection of mean bad guys and plenty of gun play, so it seems petty to complain.
Why I read it: I needed a break from some of Leonard’s darker work and I enjoyed the Charles Bronson movie which served as inspiration for this short novel.
Le Guin’s exploration of that inherently contradictory concept, an anarchist society, felt pointless and unbelievable, probably because anarchy itself (even the idealized, fictional version portrayed in this book) seems ridiculously illogical, unrealistic and childish, as I understand it. Is the government oppressive? Get rid of all forms of authority! Do the rich exploit the poor? Get rid of all possessions! Is anarchy failing? Apply more anarchy!
My main problem is not necessarily with Le Guin’s portrayal of anarchy in the book (though I did find that pretty implausible) but that when it inevitably starts to unravel, she falls back on more anarchy as the answer. It’s as if rebellion was a cause itself, not something to be employed in the service of a cause. Her attempts to extract some sort of deep philosophical meaning from the simple fact that a society of rebels will inevitably become a regime to be rebelled against itself did not resonate with me at all.
Another reason I didn’t enjoy reading this book is that I dislike feeling preached-at and reading fiction that contains fake science and sexual themes, all of which are prominent features of The Dispossessed and annoyed me enough to ruin any chance of achieving suspension of disbelief.
[Why I read it: Jan from choir recommended Le Guin to me a couple years ago and my friend Sarah mentioned on Facebook that she’s a huge fan.]