book

Robert Pirsig and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values has died.

The New York times has an excellent remembrance as does the New York Post. It’s worth reading both and no doubt others that will come out in the days ahead, each will have different takes on this fascinating man and his surprisingly popular book.

Robert Pirsig’s writing had a profound affect on my life and while I read this book in 1976, many of its ideas have stuck with me.

Here’s an anecdote that I remember from the book although my memory is no doubt burnished. And, I was and remain a weak reader (dyslexia) so I’m slow and tend to miss things.

Surface appearance vs. underlying form

Pirsig is riding cross country (Minnesota to San Francisco) with his son Chris and a friend (John) and his wife. Pirsig is on an old Honda (or something like that) and John and wife are on a new BMW (a much more expensive bike).

They’re somewhere in the middle of their trip, camping out and sitting around the campfire one night drinking beer. John has been complaining about the handlebars on his BMW being loose and is wondering if they’ll pass near a BMW place so he can have them fixed.

Understand that the handlebars on these motorcycles are attached to the post they sit on with a clamp (just like a bicycle) and the adjustment bolt/nut could be tightened all the way and there might still be play between the clamp and the handlebars. Unless one can fill that space, it’s a serious problem.

Pirsig is thinking that he could cut up an aluminum beer can with the tin snips he has in his saddlebag and make perfect shim stock (soft aluminum) to take the play out of John’s handlebars. But John, no doubt, would have none of it because to use a beer can on his fancy BMW would be just plain wrong. Pirsig knows that the BMW repair guy will probably use the same type of thing and charge John a fortune for it. Then Pirsig goes deep into the idea of underlying form (the way things actually work) vs. surface appearance (the BMW brand cache), and also the fact that he has no way to talk about this stuff with John and he goes around and around on this in his head, driving himself crazy.

These deep mind trips Pirsig calls “chautauquas” and he has many in this book. They’re laced with a bit of paranoia and mania (Pirsig was in real life, schizophrenic) and for me, that made them even more real.

This loose handlebar scene and resulting chautauqua becomes a metaphor for other scenes in the book and for those of us who read it, for many things in our lives.

For example, some people buy iPhones because they’re the cool phone to have, others buy them because they understand and appreciate Apple’s design of both the hardware and the iOS software underneath. Geek (underlying form) vs cool hunter (surface appearance).

If you’re into the technical stuff it might be frustrating to have some teenager who wants a pink iPhone to look cool to her friends have the same phone as you and have no clue how it works. Or, the teenager can use the phone amazingly well but doesn’t appreciate the stacks of software underneath the surface appearance.

Substitute anything for iPhone, it’s not about Apple vs Samsung, it’s about surface appearance vs underlying form. Android geeks might have the same frustration with people who buy Android phones simply because they’re cheaper.

Understand that Pirsig’s description of this frustration was the first I’d ever read of it and it hit home to me and has continued to hit home with me for over 30 years.

When I read this book I was not a big reader, this was one of the first “big” books I read that had an affect on me. And, it was scenes like the one I describe above that did it. I was struggling to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life and I experienced Pirsig’s struggle. And, Pirsig wasn’t just struggling with ideas, he was struggling with mental illness which affected his ability to relate his ideas to other people.

Phaedrus

Ten years after I’d read this book I found myself running both the Macintosh and HyperCard groups on AOL (America Online). One of the thousands of user/participants in the group had an interesting screen name: “Phaedrus47.” I remembered that Pirsig had used the name “Phaedrus” to describe his past self as a struggling creative writing teacher.

I sent a message to Phaedrus47 asking if he’d read the book. Indeed he had and this started an amazing, multi-year email discussion/chautauqua between me and Phaedrus47 / Alex Forbes who I met years later at Macworld in San Francisco and am friends with to this day.

Less is more

I’m not a big reader of books, not because I don’t want to, but because I’m so slow it might take me many months to finish one and reading is exhausting for me. For every one book I’ve read my wife has read a thousand (seriously).

But, for me, this means that the books I actually stuck with and read have been worth the trouble and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, while in many ways a slog of a read, connected with me and had a big effect.

I will never forget Robert Pirsig’s personal struggle and his articulation of it in this book.

Andy Weir talks to Lawrence Livermore Labs

This is a brilliant 45 minute talk by author Andy Weir on how he came to write his book, The Martian given to an audience at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

I’ve not read the book but enjoyed the heck out of the movie. Andy shares lots of great stuff from both the process of writing the book but also how the movie came to be made. He’s a smart, cocky, geeky dude who gives a great presentation.

This is really worth watching if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, but even if you haven’t, this will whet your appetite for both.

[via Steve Splonskowski]

Harper Lee and the cinematic life of To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee and the Cinematic Life of To Kill A Mockingbird

This is a great post on how the just published book, To Kill a Mockingbird got turned into a movie.

When Philadelphia-based publisher J.B. Lippincott Company decided to publish Harper Lee’s debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, the company requested an initial print run of just 5,000 copies. Nevertheless, upon its release in July 1960, the novel swiftly gained popularity and earned a place on the New York Times bestseller list. Unusual for a promising literary property, the motion picture rights to which were often sold before publication, To Kill a Mockingbird spent six weeks on the list before producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan acquired the rights to the book, which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961.

Incredible book. Incredible movie. Incredible story.

The True American

In ‘The True American,’ victim of attempted murder tries to save attacker

I tried to embed the video here, didn’t work. Watch it, it’s an amazing segment.

If you could face the man who tried to kill you, what would you do? A new book, “The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas,” tells the story of Raisuddin Bhuiyan, a U.S. immigrant from Bangladesh, who was shot in the face in Texas by a man trying to avenge the 9/11 attacks. Hari Sreenivasan talks to author Anand Giridharadas about Bhuiyan’s campaign to save Mark Stroman from execution.

This was a brilliant segment and once I got over Anand’s hair and listened to him I realized that this story isn’t just about how an ignorant American went on a rampage against south Asians with beards but about the fact that there is a class of Americans who are living in third world conditions inside the United States. No doubt this has always been but as the global village gets more connected and comfortable together, this class of Americans is being left out.

The fact that the person who made that observation is a Bangladeshi-American who came to this country from one of the poorest countries on earth and worked his way up is mind blowing. It’s also a great comment on how far we’ve come, leaving the Mark Stromans behind that the person who wrote the book documenting this is Anand Giridharadas, an American born journalist (New York Times, among others) of south Asian decent and he’s being interviewed by Hari Sreenivasan, an anchor on the PBS NewsHour, also of south Asian decent.

Walter Kirn talks with Susan Orlean

I was poking around Huffington Post and found this interview with the writer Susan Orlean on social media and her experience with Twitter. It’s interesting, worth looking at.

Then I started poking around Susan Orlean’s web site. That led me to her News and appearances page and I noticed a “bloggingheads” split pane video of her having a discussion with the author Walter Kirn. I started watching and couldn’t stop. You can watch it at it’s source in a bigger format: Walter Kirn talks with Susan Orlean.

Walter Kirn is a novelist who wrote the book “Up in the Air” which got turned into the movie of the same name: Up in the Air.

Susan Orlean is a writer who wrote a book called “The Orchid Thief” which got turned into a movie called: Adaptation.

Both of them have written numerous other works: books, articles, the works. They’re well respected, successful writers.

The virtual discussion between Kirn and Orlean is partly about their mutual experience of having a book adapted into a movie but it gets into other interesting territory about both writing and movies.

While I don’t agree with everything they say the discussion sheds light on storytelling, process, and their personal experiences with the effects of being associated with popular movies.

Libraries adapt to a changing world

Libraries Make Room For High-Tech ‘Hackerspaces’

“We see the library as not being in the book business, but being in the learning business and the exploration business and the expand-your-mind business,” he says. “We feel this is really in that spirit, that we provide a resource to the community that individuals would not be able to have access to on their own.”

This is the spirit of a community computer user’s group, I love it.

Informal e-reader library comparison

Informal e-reader library comparison

Marco Arment (creator of Instapaper) has done a very nice comparison of the Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iBooks on the iPad. He’s comparing availability of content (books and periodicals) less usability of the various tools.

By the way, Instapaper on the iPad is an incredible way to read articles that you’ve stored there. It caches the articles so they can be read offline and has many of iBooks’ reading features like type size and face control and more.