Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Motorcycles and Bull Fights or How the Semester Ended and Summer Began

The semester is finally wrapping up for me. I am set to graduate again on Thursday, but I won’t be there. Wednesday, as many of you well know, we will be taking off on a marathon vacation. It is my intention, if all goes as planned, to be able to blog about the trip as we go. My magic brother Nick said “abracadabra” and a power cord/AC adapter that should fit my laptop appeared in his office. He sent the cord to my buddy Mike in Pasadena with whom we are staying on Saturday night this week. (Again,) If all goes as planned, the cable will be retrieved and will provide the spark necessary to power said laptop and we will be in business. So—those in the blogosphere who are anxious for a play-by-play—get excited (and cross your fingers that the cable works—and thanks be to Nicky).

This post is to get you up to speed on the two most recent books that I read. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig

First a bit about Zen. The question is, what bit? I am torn about how to report on this book. I really liked it, but I really had to slog through it. The good parts were enough to keep me slogging as well as the fact that the book had been highly recommended to me by one of the smartest people I know, my mission buddy Brian Hall.

Here is the breakdown: As I mention in an earlier post, Zen is a travel narrative interspersed with intellectual bits about Pirsig’s philosophy of Quality. Defining what Quality is in this short post in a way that would justify how Pirsig defines it (or admits to its in-definability) is impossible. Basically, and to use his motorcycle maintenance metaphor, we, our lives, and the way we view those around us, are the motorcycle. That motorcycle, while being operated, is in a constant state of deterioration. If we don’t do anything about that deterioration by maintaining the quality of the machine, the machine will first cease to operate smoothly and eventually quit all together. Quality can be defined (in this simplistic analysis) as that spark (to use that word again) that motivates us to maintain. If we maintain the motorcycle, we will find that this maintenance (and not necessarily the object maintained) brings us joy.

So there you go. The tough thing about the book is that Pirsig seeks to carve out quality as a kind of missing link in western philosophy. So, he goes about describing the threads of this thought very thoroughly and very intellectually. This high-brow intellectualism can be daunting to the reader and, if you are just a casual reader, frankly get pretty boring. You really have to pay attention.

Two things kept me moving. The travel narrative is top-rate. The narrator and his son start in Minnesota and end their road-trip in San Francisco. The description of that journey, which includes a significant stop in Bozeman, Montana, is lovely. I really wish there was more to it.

The other thing that kept me going is that the narrator is a rhetoric professor. I had no idea that this was the case when I started reading. Much of the novel focuses on his own back story—told in a weird, third-person sort of way in which he names himself Phaedrus (there is a good reason for this, but you’ll have to read the book to find out). Phaedrus was an English professor at the University of Montana and a lot of the story is about his experiences teaching rhetoric—which, for me, is fascinating seeing as that is what I will be doing with my life as well.

So, do I recommend it? Yeah—I can’t not. Will I feel bad if nobody takes my recommendation? Not one bit. (Do I enjoy asking myself questions and then answering them?—definitely. I picked it up as a wrapping-up strategy from my mission president. Charming, huh? Yes it is.)

The Sun Also Rises – Earnest Hemingway

I just finished this novel, my first full length Hemingway. It was interesting, to be sure, and I think I would like to read another. Published in the early 20s, The Sun Also Rises was Hemingway’s first commercial success. Most of us have read The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald was Hemingway’s contemporary and friend (and later, competitor). This might help those of you wondering what the style of the writing is like. It has the same kind of bleak, spare, beauty that is present in Fitzgerald’s work, but pared back even further. Hemingway is famous for his short, non-flowery sentences and the long, simple, uninterrupted dialog of his characters.

Hemingway and Fitzgerald, as well as many other American writers and artists in the 20s, were expatriates living in France. Hemingway was a World War I veteran and was a part of what Gertrude Stein called “The Lost Generation.” The Sun Also Rises is a thinly veiled autobiography, in that sense. It is about a veteran writer living in Paris, trying to come to terms with the aftermath of the war as well as his own sense of self. He is lonely. War wounds have left him literally emasculated (eek) and the woman he loves (and who loves him) won’t settle down with him for this reason and spends her time roving.

The novel takes the reader on a trip to Spain and I guess is the reason that the running of the bulls and bull fighting became well known in America.

Like Fitzgerald novels, the characters in Sun are seldom seen not drinking. This is a part of the pathetic loneliness that pervades the novel. However, the characters in the novel use a funny word for “drunk.” When a character is drunk, they will often refer to themselves as “tight.” I thought this was kind of a funny way to express that unfortunate condition and it also shows how the use of slang changes over the years. When I was growing up the word “tight” meant something akin to “awesome.” I might say to Andy Hunt: “Dude, those shoes are tight man. Where did you get them?" I guess there are other meanings: “tight-wad” means something quite different than awesome or drunk.

Can this wise readership think of any other words that have come to mean something other than what they were originally intended?


I’m currently reading Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (at Michelle’s suggestion)—so far so good.


  1. i didn't get you a birthday present...consider it late.

  2. I remember when "hey" meant hark, or may I have your attention,not "hi."

    "Dude" meant an unexperienced cowboy, not "buddy."

    I'm glad cool is still cool.

  3. remind brandon to tell you what word zane used when he said "the ups truck." I can't bring myself to type it, but it fits perfectly with the question you asked. :)

  4. the word is penis. come on michelle! be brave!