I pulled the pink paperback out of my lunch cooler.
My back was to everyone else when I read it in the break room. Usually filled with cowboys and farmer’s sons and guys needing gas money, I was the lone college boy. My educational status was a sign of difference to these men, and I tried not to broach the subject often. So when I was assigned to read a book with a pink cover, and my lunch break at this shipping plant was a good time to do so, I usually did it in stealth mode.
But the book did something to me. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance isn’t even a catchy title, but has become a strange philosophical book from the 1970’s, written by Robert Pirsig. I had to read it for a college assignment, and gave it my best try.
I think I was too young to read something that was meant to be profound. The long, thoughful passages were boring and senseless to me. But I do remember two things from the book. One, the characters in the book travel across the country on a motorcycle. Two, a passage about assembling a barbecue grill.
And that second passage changed the way I thought.
The character was either assembling a grill, or recalling a time when he did assemble one. And he embarked on a discussion about the assembly instructions, about how necessary they really were. Could the grill be assembled another way? Would it work the other way? And would you have created something new if you departed from the instructions? The assembly instructions included with the grill seemed to be so strict, so rigid, and the argument, as I remember it, was that those instructions attempted to steal any chance of original thinking.
I remember thinking that the main character, Phaedrus, thought way too much about a barbeque grill. And I remember that I shouldn’t be so overwhelmed by the recollections of a barbecue grill assembly.
But the point, if there is one, is still fairly profound, and the questions such a small passage present are worth answering:
Are there other ways to accomplish one task? Is it worth incorporating other views, or should our accomplishments be limited to only the given instructions which have preceded us? And when we refuse the opinions of others, are we closing the door on something better? Or are really scared of other ways, other opinions, to accomplish one particular objective?
It is a now infamous, almost cultic book. And that pink cover is gone. It would be much easier to read it in that break room now.