I’d never read Robert Pirsig’s famous philosophical novel, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” though as an English major I recall more than one college professor bringing it up, frequently and wistfully.
They regularly told us that the cleverly titled book was “profound” and that it “had something to tell us.” And I always meant to find out why.
“Zen” had come out back in 1974 and it was highly popular, both with book reviewers and bookstores. It was the “it” book for its time — which probably was why we students, as self-proclaimed serious students of “Hamlet,” “King Lear” and “Huckleberry Finn,” after all, were suspicious of it.
When Pirsig died a few weeks ago, “Zen” remained his primary claim to fame. The book is the sort-of fictional account of a motorcycle trip the author and his 11-year-old son took in 1968 from Minnesota to California. Pirsig had decided to take the trip after a long bout of being hospitalized for depression and schizophrenia. He’d started “Zen” as “lighthearted essay,” he noted later.
The novel spoke to a generation of readers who were … does the word “disillusioned” still carry any meaning today? Those who were worn out by Vietnam, the war and its protests and scandals, by the then-shocking shenanigans of LBJ and Nixon.
Today? I checked out a copy from the Cedar Rapids library and, to my surprise — though maybe I shouldn’t be, as those college professors were pretty smart people — it indeed has a lot to say about working through problems, whether in life in general or at the workplace.
The novel’s subtitle, after all, a directive from the author as much as a descriptor, is “An inquiry into values.”
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For example, in this era of fake news, the narrator of “Zen” would caution is that “The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know.” In terms of management, that’s a wise word of advice, similar to “Look before you leap” and “Measure twice, cut once.”
Throughout he a lot to say about a variety of leadership characteristics and failings, from ego to boredom to impatience, all through the metaphor of maintaining the motorcycle that bears him and his son on their journey. On anxiety and indecision, the narrator comments on how in our “excessive fussiness” we tend to “fix things that don’t need fixing, and chase after imaginary ailments.”
One remedy? Remind yourself that “there isn’t a mechanic alive who doesn’t louse up a job once in a while. The difference is that when they do it you don’t hear about it — just pay for it …. When you make the mistakes yourself, you at least get the benefit of some education.”
You still have a few opportunities to participate in some of our Iowa Ideas symposia. We’ll be in Council Bluffs on May 9, Davenport May 23 and back in Cedar Rapids June 6. Then we’ll have our big event at the DoubleTree by Hilton Sept. 20 to 22 in Cedar Rapids. Go to thegazette.com/iowaideas to see the specific topics and speakers planned for discussion at each symposium and make your reservation.
And if you missed the past editions of The Gazette’s “Iowa Ideas” magazine, sign up at thegazette.com/iowaideas to have a copy mailed to you free. You also can catch up our stories online there.
l Michael Chevy Castranova is business editor of The Gazette; (319) 398-5873; firstname.lastname@example.org