Posts Tagged ‘book review’

A review of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’

December 30, 2014

I first read Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when I was about 14 and have re-read it about three times since then. Trying to give a short review, which will still do justice to this wonderful book isn’t easy.

It was a massive struggle for the author to get the book published. After receiving dozens and dozens of rejection slips, he eventually found a publisher. The publisher in question said that the book forced him to reconsider why he went into publishing in the first place – is it to make money or to produce great literature? A book about philosophy – initially the expectation was that it would sell only a few thousand copies, yet it has sold in its millions.

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a story of Robert Pirsig, the author, and his son as they journey across America on an old motorbike. It is also a story of a clash of values – whether we should be obsessed with the image of things, or whether we should be purely utilitarian about our possessions. Does it matter what they are called, or what they look like, as long as they perform their function well? Pirsig calls these outlooks “romantic” and “classical”, and then goes further in trying to unite these two opposing outlooks in terms of “Quality”.

I suppose the romantic / classical dichotomy in the book also applies to religion / science, or to a need to understand the meaning behind things and why they work (classical), or the opposite point of view which would be simply to appreciate their beauty (romantic).

A parallel narrative in the book is that of the fictional Phaedrus, who goes on a voyage of self-discovery, just as the author and his son are travelling across country. He attempts to reconcile Western and Oriental, scientific and religious, classical and romantic attitudes towards life, again through the notion of Quality.

Following the philosopher Immanuel Kant, Pirsig believes that our concepts of the world are built out of what we experience. These aspects of reality that we cannot sense directly, Kant calls a priori experience.

According to Pirsig, at the cutting edge of experience is Quality – an analogy would be of surfing a wave, or riding a motorcycle – the shifting experience we have of the natural world, transmitted through the filter of our senses.

When we become stuck with a problem, we may be forced to re-evaluate our entire perceptions:
“Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding.” Pirsig talks about a screw which has become sheared so that you cannot remove it when you are trying to fix your bike. “Normally screws are so cheap and small and simple you think of them as unimportant. But now, as your Quality awareness becomes stronger, you realise that the screw actually has the same value as the whole motorcycle.”

What he is discussing is how the precepts of Zen Buddhism can break us out of normal ways of thought and force us to come up with new ideas. We need to re-think things because the world is in a continual state of flux – Quality. We need to look deeper than merely on the surface of things and think about what they are really worth.

The philosophy comes, thankfully, in small, bite-size chunks, interspersed with Pirsig telling the story of his journey across America on motorbike. It has to be written like this, otherwise it would be unreadably dense. However, there are shafts of insight between the two tales which clarify each other. Pirsig calls this journey a Chautauqua – an Indian word for an oral story. Again he employs the deliberate juxtaposition of Western / Indian, classical / romantic ideas. Reading it, however, is still an intellectual challenge. This is a book which demands to be re-read repeatedly and thought about.

There is also a sequel, Lila, which explores similar themes and develops Pirsig’s ideas further. (But that story is for another review).

I would highly recommend Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to anyone who wants a stimulating and thought-provoking read. It will stay with you for life, such is the power of Pirsig’s crystal-clear prose. This is a wonderful book.

As we come marching, marching (review of ‘Little Red Poetry’)

February 25, 2014

A review of Andrew Walton’s Little Red Poetry by Dave Gorton

For too long, poetry has been seen as the property of the well-educated or the middle classes, an idea happily perpetuated by capitalism which, for its own survival, needs to ensure the working class ‘knows its place’. Many poets’ use of sometimes anarchic structures and styles leaves such poetry less easily ‘interpreted’ and certainly outside of the very rigid constraints of the national curriculum. Poetry in schools is reduced to learning and reciting poems by heart, which becomes a chore.

Yet, literature would be a much less rich field without, for instance, the likes of Shelley’s calls to arms in the 19th century, Sassoon’s war poems, Brecht’s socialism, or more recently the sheer imagery and force engendered by the great, but now both sadly late, Norman MacCaig and Seamus Heaney.

Andrew Walton, a Leicester Socialist Party member, has just published his own short collection and it is definitely worth picking up a copy. Drew – as he is probably better known to readers – says Little Red Poetry argues for socialism and it does indeed. The collection includes poems on a host of issues such as the bedroom tax, an EDL march in Leicester and Unite, Falkirk and the need for a new workers’ party.

His views will be shared by most readers of The Socialist but Drew uses his talent to describe his anger in a different way than the majority of us would in, say, writing a leaflet.

Take his verses on the dismantling of the welfare state:-
Millions of workers that once were employed
Building, making – lie idle. Stage by stage:
Confidence shattered, despair unalloyed.

or in Triple Dip:-
Something is wrong, when the future of millions
Is described as if we were fruit in a yoghurt,
Or sticks of chocolate in an ice-cream pot.

In Mutually Assured Destruction, Drew’s stanza:
There is another way
Not wasteful profiteering
But dialogue, co-operation,
Democracy, solidarity,
Community and sharing.

highlights the alternative to capitalism in beautiful simplicity.

And his modern ‘re-writing’ of Grandola Vila Morena – the song of the 1974 Portuguese Revolution – is very bold … but it works. The powerful final stanza, like the rest of the collection, signals the writer’s unshakeable confidence in the working class to overcome the yoke of capitalism:
In the spirit of nineteen-seventy-four,
We, the masses, are rising once more.
We shudder the seats of power;
Millions are singing our tune.

It would seem churlish, particularly as I can’t string two verses together, to be overly critical of Drew’s efforts but this is a review so….

While he is certainly not the worst protagonist I’ve read, once or twice, the rhyming in some poems seems forced and unnatural (though I hadn’t needed to have been as wary as I was when I read the line in Why I didn’t watch the royal wedding following “Or paying for the Queen to float down the Thames on a barge, like a gigantic duck”).

And it would be interesting to read some longer pieces (hopefully the next collection, eh Drew?).

But I do think this is a fantastic effort and one that should be more widely publicised and read.

Thanks go to Dave Gorton, for reviewing my efforts! I am in the process of writing another collection on the environment and socialism, to be called Little Green Poetry.

You can read some more of my poetry in ‘Little Red Poetry’. All proceeds go to build a new party for ordinary people, against cuts and privatisation. Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Copies are also available from Left Books

Book review: Godel, Escher, Bach

December 3, 2013

It is not very often that a book about mathematics goes straight to the top of the bestseller charts. A publisher’s axiom is that, for every equation written in a book they are drastically reducing its readership. However, Godel Escher Bach is a wonderful exception to this theory, explaining complex mathematical ideas to a lay audience, without compromising on content. It is a work of art as well as a serious non-fiction book, drawing together similar themes in music, mathematics and art. At 770 pages long, it is not easy to summarise, but I will have a go at dealing with some of the key concepts.

Godel Escher Bach is about artificial intelligence – the idea that, with advances in technology, one day the computer will be able to think for itself. It will have its own personality and be able to escape the trammels laid down for it by its programmer. There is an argument that this is impossible – described eloquently by Roger Penrose in The Emperor’s New Mind. There is also an argument that, given enough processing power and enough complexity, that intelligence will arise automatically. This may seem more likely, after all our brains have evolved with a finite number of neurons and neural pathways. Equally, advances in computing power, which is growing at a phenomenal rate, may one day reach and even surpass our own intelligence. Then again, this could be an impossibility.

Hofstadter is definitely in the “AI is possible” camp. Written in 1979, Godel Escher Bach (GEB) is Hofstadter’s pioneering and brilliant attempt at popularising his own approach to artificial intelligence. It explores things from the ground up – How can we simulate thoughts on a computer? What process might be going on as we think?

To explore these questions, Hofstadter explores three at first apparently unrelated fields – Bach’s fugues, Escher’s prints and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem.


Have a listen to The Musical Offering by J.S. Bach – it sounds mathematical, clinical and incredibly ornate – as if four instruments are playing, even though it is actually a solo piece. The reason for this is the structure of much of his music, which constantly refers to its own melody by inverting itself, harmonising with another copy of the melody which is staggered in pitch or in time, or even with a backward copy of itself. Hofstadter points out that the music is operating on itself. This is a key concept in the book – a “Strange Loop”.


Similar self-reference can be found in many of Escher’s works, such as “Drawing Hands” – where a hand is drawing a picture on a piece of paper, except the drawing itself is a hand, drawing a picture of a hand, which is coming out of the paper and drawing . . ..

Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem

In 1913, the philosopher Bertrand Russell produced a uniquely ambitious project, the Principia Mathematica, which attempted to get rid of all this self-referential nonsense in mathematics and put it on a firm, logical footing.

Godel made the startling proof that this was impossible. In any given list of numbers, if you take the leftmost number and simply add 1 on to it, then take the second left number from the next number in the sequence, and so on . . . you are left with a number, which, because it has been operated on by every number in the sequence, it cannot itself be part of the sequence.

Furthermore, any number can be represented by a corresponding computer program, for what is termed a Universal Turing Machine (a prototype, imaginary computer proposed by the British scientist Alan Turing).

A Universal Turing Machine can process any instruction on card [bear in mind that Turing was writing in the 1950s, when punched cards were a state of the art storage system], which can be defined in terms of a binary, or decimal number. Hofstadter shows that any Turing machine powerful enough to be “universal”, that is be able to run any such programme, must also be able to run a programme, which would in itself destroy the machine, since that can also be encoded as a programme.

Therefore, it is impossible to devise a way of encoding all mathematics, as “strange loops” are unavoidable. This is also relevant also to biology, since, in the final chapters of the book, Hofstadter thinks of DNA as a computer program, and indeed there are self-replicating strands of DNA, encapsulated in proteins which hijack cells in order to reproduce themselves, and so infect their host. We call them viruses.

To make all this more digestible, Hofstadter introduces each section with snippets from a dialogue between Achilles and the Tortoise, in imitation of Lewis Carroll. While he doesn’t quite manage the beauty and intrinsic childishness of Alice in Wonderland, nevertheless this is a highly original and beautiful approach to mathematics which anyone can understand, even if we are not all able to follow every twist and turn of this fantastic book.

I read GEB first when I was in my late teens and have returned to it occasionally ever since. Don’t get the “20th Anniversary Edition”, however. Try to find an earlier copy since the later edition is very cheaply produced in order to keep costs down and this does not do justice to the many Escher works included in the volume. If you can afford a hardback copy, so much the better. This is one book you will never tire of reading.