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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance   (March 15, 2007)

Correspondent Bill M. recently penned the following observations about the demise of quality, and referenced a book of the mid-70s which found its way into practically every adult readers' hands at that time, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values.

Bill is a craftsman, carpenter/builder and artist. As an example of his work, here is one of his recent creations, the U.S. Constitution Chime of which he has made a set of 13 (the number of the original states). Other chimes are displayed on his website.

Long-time readers will anticipate that Bill's comments on craft and self-reliance resonated very strongly with me:

I just briefly read a piece by Martin Weiss talking about the Quality over Quantity mindest of the Japanese versus the Quantity over Quality American mindset or something along those lines. I read Pirsig's book while on the North Shore (of Oahu, Hawaii) in my early 30's. I was moved by it. But since I was still fairly young and single just hanging out surfing and mountain biking it really did not have the upfront impact.

Now that I am in full blown middle age with the family to support and seeing all that I am seeing now it has come to be in the front of my mind, after 15 years. I find myself going nuts at times over the quality in the construction trade and pretty much life in general. It is so horrible what I see being passed off as work it makes me really flip. I learned the trade along time ago from so unbelievable skilled old Italian dudes in Jersey to who I am forever in debt.

After my /our generation passes there are going to be so few skilled people left. I am going to teach my kids every thing I have learned and make sure they work with me a few years before they go to college so they really have the skills to succeed in any environment. I guess the quality of life/work/products is in direct proportion to the quality of money.
I too worry about the decline of craft and self-reliance in this country. Lest you think I am just an old hippie carpenter who should be deploying (rant) (/rant) tags, read this story: Dark side of the housing boom: Shoddy construction.

Bill's post touches on two important themes: the decline of common literature and the decline in life skills. Of the two, the latter is of course of purely practical concern. Let me relate some anecdotes to suggest the severity of the problem. As a resident of a university town--one of the top-ranked public universities of the world and a town with a storied history of progressive/wacky innovations-- many of my neighbors are highly educated students completing advanced-degree studies.

Here is an example of their grasp on actual life: to repair a broken weld on a baby carriage, the guy wrapped packing tape around the axle. As an emergency repair, this is OK, but even a piece of wire tightened with a pair of pliers would have been a semi-permanent fix. The same fellow asked me to replace the light bulb in his hallway, I guess because he couldn't figure out how to remove the globe.

You might be tempted to dismiss this as a typical "head in the clouds academic" story, but then there are many stories about young non-academic people who have no cooking skills, can't balance their checkbook, etc.

One of the town's most celebrated residents, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame, has made a big splash around the country with her latest "revolutionary" idea: that school kids tend gardens on campus and then help prepare the vegetables grown into healthy lunches so they learn to connect growing actual food with what they eat.

Rant tags deployed.(Rant) When did having a garden and learning how to prepare real food with fresh vegetables become "revolutionary"? If there is any indicator of just how low we have sunk on the self-reliance scale, I think this is it. As diseases of unhealthy diet run rampant (Type II diabetes, virtually unknown just a few decades ago), threatening to cripple tens of millions of young Americans, then a simple garden and healthy lunch scheme launched in wacky Berkeley, Calif. is considered an astonishing innovation in U.S. education.(/rant)

What I wish young people unerstood about the early 70s is the value which was placed on skills and self-reliance. The so-called hippies seem to be remembered now for the gaudier aspects of "peace, love, dope", but the core of the Counter-Culture was self-reliance and learning to do things yourself so your dependence on The Establisnment (now called PTB, the Powers That Be) was limited.

Thus, everyone with a Volkswagen Beetle bought a copy of The Idiot's Guide to Volkswagen Maintenance and tuned up their own car. We (Counter-Culture types) also planted gardens, baked bread (yes, I did), learned to cook, make furniture (clunky, but it worked), brew beer (sometimes it blew up, oh well) start our own businesses, build our own houses, play in our own bands, and learn a host of other life skills which seem nearly forgotten in urban America, if not all of America. Self-sufficiency and life skills were admired and sought after, not viewed as menial work reserved for poor immigrants.

I have commented before on the cultural decline of respect for trades and craft; thus, refineries and other industries essential to "modern life" are having trouble finding young people to work in "dirty" skilled-labor trades; everyone wants to be a bond trader or programmer or Internet start-up hero, work in a clean cubicle and make tons of money pushing a few keys and staring at a monitor all day. The fact that you know nothing of actual living is rarely noted or even decried. yet the astonishingly poor health of young people is directly related to their ignorance of growing actual food and preparing actual food. This seems rather obvious, but very little is said about it. Is that because self-reliance and preparing actual real food is simply not profitable?

On to popular literature. Every decade has its "must read" books; recently, it's been The DaVinci Code. In the mid-70s, it was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an Inquiry Into Values and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. While I am not a fan of Pynchon--of the hundreds of thousands of copies of Gravity's Rainbow sold, most still have bookmarks on page 21, for it is an inpenetrable thicket--it is considered a "post-modern" classic with many fans. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, meanwhile, though it has dropped into a form of cultural obscurity, continues to sell even better than Gravity's Rainbow, at least on amazon.com.

While quite different, these books were definitely about ideas. I don't think you can claim the same about the last decade's "must-read" books. Bless her heart, Oprah has done an amazing job of re-introducing Americans to difficult classics of American literature by authors such as Faulkner, but she has also encouraged an entire literature of victimhood and redemption. This script--intensely dramatic escapes from abuse, miring poverty, and drug addiction via some flavor of spiritual redemption--is certainly gripping for awhile, but it's also as limited and tiresome as boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl.

This decline in the literature of ideas has many causes, but certainly critics have to shoulder some of the responsibility. Books like Gravity's Rainbow have received inordinate amounts of unstinting praise. While this critical praise attracts buyers it does not attract readers. I have worked my way through many modern classics in the past 10 years, including Moby-Dick and Lolita, two famously difficult texts, and found rewards for the effort required. I cannot say the same of Gravity's Rainbow, which is akin to James Joyce's Ulysses in its labrynthine and purposefully obscure language and structure.

Despite my distaste for this "post-modern" style (that's another topic for another time), it is certainly true that popular literature once included books of challenging ideas. Many such books continue to be authored and published, but they are largely ignored.

Which books of the past 50 years will still be read and savored 100 years from now? Very few, of course; how many books published in 1907 still attract readers? No one alive today can predict what those titles will be. These two immensely popular books of the 70s are still in print: "Zen" is ranked 2.099 on amazon.com, while the basically unreadable self-consciously obscure Gravity's Rainbow is ranked 18,104. In other words, each still attracts readers, over 30 years after publication. This is no mean accomplishment.

Will anyone read Gravity's Rainbow or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an Inquiry Into Values 100 years hence? I think not, for the simple reason each is too embedded in its own time. But perhaps I'm wrong about this. Though Gravity remains a critical darling, I would place my bet on Zen just because it will remain readable and cogent in a way Gravity is not (and never will be).

What we can know is that no one will be reading The DaVinci Code, or anything else which rocketed to popularity in the past decade or so. Lachrymose tales of woe and redemption will always be popular, as will thrillers and mysteries, but 100 years hence there will be a newly published shelf of such books for sale, and no need or desire to read 100-year old hastily-scripted novels of past woes and redemptions.

For more on this subject and a wide array of other topics, please visit my weblog.


copyright © 2007 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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