the item

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

the questions

  1. How to hack stuff

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the consensus

An intricate book appealing to hackers, a literary masterpiece, an introduction into philosophy, and a book to change the way you think, you have to read this book at least once in your life

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the review

What's the difference between crazy and genius? It's a question I've been asking myself constantly for the last three days as I've read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"

This book is legendary with hackers. Every couple of months or so I'll hear hackers say something like this to one another "You have to read this book. It totally changed my life."

So, after hearing this many, many times, I bought it but refused to read it. It all just seemed so, well, silly. What do I care about Zen that I would want to spend so much time reading about it? How was it useful? And I've never even owned a motorcycle. Sounds like a lot of time spent on stuff that might be interesting, but certainly not immediately practical.

Worse still, from hearing other hackers talk about it, this seemed like one of those "fuzzy" books. You know, books that go on and on but don't really say much. Pointless. Rambling. Full of big ideas but nothing much reallythere.

After reading it, however, I have a much different opinion. It started slowly for me, but once I got going I felt as if I had to finish it. I had to know how it all turned out.

ZAMM is book of levels. On one level it is a slighlty interesting but mostly bland book about a man, his son, and their adventures taking a cross-country trip on a motorcycle in the early 1970s. Strip it down a bit, however, and it's an intricate and educational story of how philosophy works and the role of philsophy in a person's life. If you still keep stripping, you'll find a wonderfully autobiographic and touching story about a man going insane. Poking even more, you find a heart-warming and tender story of a father's relationship with his son.

All these levels of stories are happening at the same time. They all fit together perfectly. It's "wheels within wheels" It really appealed to my enjoyment of intricately put-together things.

Overall the book left me speechless. I have the feeling I get when I meet somebody casually -- say at a dinner party -- and, upon asking some simple question about the weather or something, I'm given an answer of such depth and complexity as to require quite a bit of thought. Where does the search for meaning stop and the beginings of insanity start? Can something be so profound that I do not understand it? Does that make it crazy? Because I have to know, does that make me crazy?

The book was a runaway best-seller. If you go to Amazon, there are over 600 positive reviews there, and thousands of more positive reviews all over the net. Whether sane or crazy, Robert Pirsig has managed to move a lot of people with this simple story about very complex things.

I have to recommend this book. Try as I might, there's nothing about it that I can seriously ding. I have to tell people that I care about that this is an important book. They have to read it. It takes you on a journey that will change your life.

Why do we do stuff? Is what we perceive all there really is? Why is modern life so empty and cold at times?

If those questions sound a little too fuzzy and useless to you, try these on for size. What is the role of design -- website design, product design, app design -- in our lives? What is the real nature of social networking? As a hacker, what types of things should I value in my work and life? Aside from money, just what is the purpose of making things, anyway? How am I supposed to live my life so that I don't wake up in twenty years and feel like it was time wasted?

The last questions are not directly addressed -- there were no web applications in the United States in 1974 -- but it's all there if you pay close attention. And this book offers a lot to pay close attention to. Some parts flew by, some parts I had to slow down and pay careful attention to what Pirsig was trying to say. But overall, the entire book went by very quickly -- powerfully engaging in some mysterious fashion -- yet there was also a lot of depth too. I feel I could read this book several more times, each time getting more and more out of it.

A spiritual book that works even for people who are not spiritual.

As Pirsig says about the book in it's introduction: "it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either." So if you're expecting motorcycles, fluffiness, or eastern-sounding koans, as I was, you've come to the wrong place.

So what is it? What's the premise of the book? As it turns out, that's a really difficult question to nail down. If I had to put the book's philosophy into one (really bad) phrase, I would put it something like this "The moments between when stimulus arrives at your mind and when you decide how that stimulus fits into your notion of how the universe functions is a spiritual one. It is both pre- objective and pre-subjective, and therefore exists outside the normal duality in life that we sometimes think of as romantic and rational. Because of this, because it comes before rationalization and creativity, it is the source of spirituality, which is basically our search for and identification of value and meaning (which Persig calls quality) in our lives"

But I probably screwed that up. I could read it again and I'd get a completely new insight into it. I'm no philospher. Don't take it from me. I have a feeling that everybody that reads it will come away with a different take. You have to read it.

I also think it's a mistake to view books like this as being of an instructive nature. Some folks who are new to philosophy think that philosophy is just like math -- as you learn more you move from simple concepts to more difficult ones. But philosophy is non-linear and non-conclusive: what the Greeks had to say about Truth and Beauty is just a relevant now as something that was said ten years ago. Sucessful philosophy doesn't answer questions, it opens up huge new areas to ask questions about. Philosophy is the parent of science. It's the exploratory thing that happens when people start talking about new things.

Reading philosophy, to me, is like sitting down with some really smart people and listening in as they think on big problems. Sure, I could watch cheap movies and shoot the breeze with friends over beer about the same things, but why reinvent the wheel? Why circle around saying the same things somebody said two thousand years ago without even realizing it? If some genius spent his life trying to come up with insight, isn't it probably worth it to me to spend a few hours hearing what he has to say? Isn't it worth using his thoughts as my starting point? That doesn't mean that the philosopher is a prophet or an oracle. Hell, those guys are probably as mixed up as the rest of humanity. Maybe more so. But it also doesn't mean that he has nothing worthwhile to say. Many, many times by reading and listening to things like this I learn more about my own life and values. Reading philosophy all boils down to asking yourself a question: do other people have anything important to tell me about the big questions in life? Unless you are a minless fool, you realize that not only do you need step-by-step instructions on startups and hacking, much more you need some kind of strategic picture of how it all fits together.

So if you want to get a feel for what philosophy is like, but don't want anything too terribly difficult to read, this book is for you. It makes for an excellent introduction to why philosophy is important. If you're looking for great literary work, this book is also for you: it's easily in the top books of any kind in the last century. More specifically, if you are looking for how technology and you are going to fit together -- which is a deep and important subject for hackers -- you need to read this book.

I agree with this from Wikipedia:

Pirsig's publisher's recommendation to his Board ended with "This book is brilliant beyond belief, it is probably a work of genius, and will, I'll wager, attain classic stature." Pirsig noted in an early interview, that Zen was rejected 121 times before being accepted by William Morrow Publishers. In his book review, George Steiner compared Pirsig's writing to Dostoevsky, Broch, Proust, and Bergson, stating that "the assertion itself is valid... the analogies with Moby-Dick are patent". The Times Literary Supplement called it "Profoundly important, Disturbing, Deeply moving, Full of insights, A wonderful book".

This book changed the way I think. It's not life, the universe and everything -- even though Pirsig no doubt felt that way as he winded his way towards insanity. But it is grippingly powerful on many levels, a powerful introduction to philosophy, a powerful introduction to mental illness, and a powerful meditation on the father-son relationship. I will be thinking about this book and incorporating it into my life and work for a long time to come.


the buzz

Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along

In his now classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig brings us a literary chautauqua, a novel that is meant to both entertain and edify. It scores high on both counts.

Phaedrus, our narrator, takes a present-tense cross-country motorcycle trip with his son during which the maintenance of the motorcycle becomes an illustration of how we can unify the cold, rational realm of technology with the warm, imaginative realm of artistry. As in Zen, the trick is to become one with the activity, to engage in it fully, to see and appreciate all details--be it hiking in the woods, penning an essay, or tightening the chain on a motorcycle.

In his autobiographical first novel, Pirsig wrestles both with the ghost of his past and with the most important philosophical questions of the 20th century--why has technology alienated us from our world? what are the limits of rational analysis? if we can't define the good, how can we live it? Unfortunately, while exploring the defects of our philosophical heritage from Socrates and the Sophists to Hume and Kant, Pirsig inexplicably stops at the middle of the 19th century. With the exception of Poincaré, he ignores the more recent philosophers who have tackled his most urgent questions, thinkers such as Peirce, Nietzsche (to whom Phaedrus bears a passing resemblance), Heidegger, Whitehead, Dewey, Sartre, Wittgenstein, and Kuhn. In the end, the narrator's claims to originality turn out to be overstated, his reasoning questionable, and his understanding of the history of Western thought sketchy. His solution to a synthesis of the rational and creative by elevating Quality to a metaphysical level simply repeats the mistakes of the premodern philosophers. But in contrast to most other philosophers, Pirsig writes a compelling story. And he is a true innovator in his attempt to popularize a reconciliation of Eastern mindfulness and nonrationalism with Western subject/object dualism. The magic of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance turns out to lie not in the answers it gives, but in the questions it raises and the way it raises them. Like a cross between The Razor's Edge and Sophie's World, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance takes us into "the high country of the mind" and opens our eyes to vistas of possibility.


the video

What is this?

A while back I wrote an article on my blog listing all the books that hackers recommended to each other from the site HackerNews. The purpose was to provide a place to list book recommendations so that people didn't have to type in the same list over and over again. (HN gets several requests for book recommendations a week. I also get at least a couple each month). It was very well received, and many posters and commenters either asked that I make a site or sent me an email asking me to do so.

How is this any different from the list on the blog?

This list has more books. This list is sortable both by what question you have and your skill level. In addition, once you sort the list, you can save the link with your sort and send it to somebody else. So, for instance, when somebody wants a book for noobs learning to program, you can make a link for that and then reuse it

How did you collect these books?

Initially the list came from Googling "best book" and taking the books from the first few pages returned. Later, I added all the books that were mentioned "You left that out!" when Jacques posted the link. While adding those books, I came across a Stack Overflow link where programmers were asked to list their favorite tech books, so I included those too.

If I ask you to put a book on here, will you?

It depends.

These books were all gathered by finding places where hackers hang out and are suggesting books to other hackers and other hackers agree with them by voting up their suggestion. If I can find an example of this for your book, I'm happy to include it.

How are the books ranked?

I did the best I could with ranking. I am sure there are many things you do not agree with. It would be possible to add voting and personal ranking -- that would make the system much better. Heck, you could rank the books yourself and use it as a customized book list to show to people who want your advice. I'd like to do that, but if I've learned anything is to not let your featureset get ahead of the users. This first version will test the waters to see what kind of interest the community might have.