Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Robert Pirsig, who wrote...

...Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died at age 88.

Pirsig's obit in the Times is unremarkable, except maybe for this:

Mr. Pirsig maintained that 121 publishing houses rejected “Zen” before William Morrow accepted it. He was granted a $3,000 advance, but an editor cautioned him against hoping the book would earn a penny more. Within months of its release, it had sold 50,000 copies.

Mr. Pirsig was a college writing instructor and freelance technical writer when the novel — its full title was “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values” — was published in 1974 to critical acclaim and explosive popularity, selling a million copies in its first year and several million more since.

Even though I've never been able to finish Zen -- I've started it at least two or three times, getting farther and farther each time -- I feel like I should say something about Mr. Pirsig and his famous book. Why? Because Zen was one of my favorite high school teacher's favorite books. Jim Ryan assigned it to our English class in either 1974, '75 or '76, shortly after it was published. Pirsig, like Mr. Ryan, was a teacher who lived in the Twin Cities when he wrote the book. (Could the two have possibly known each other?)

Since Zen was required reading, I started it and quickly put it down when I got frustrated. (It's not a straightforward narrative.) But, as I said, I've picked it up a few times since and have gotten farther each time. I've read articles about the book, and Pirsig, and so now I understand better what he was trying to say. Maybe some day I'll even finish it.

But in the meantime I'll pause for a moment to mark Mr. Pirsig's death -- and Mr. Ryan's, who died a few years ago. (I guess this post is really about him.)

When I moved to Minnesota to start my junior year of high school in 1974 I had been an indifferent student, at best, all my life. I was a classic underachiever: I had very little interest in school, didn't read anything beyond the sports page of the local newspaper and was mostly a screw-off. But when I arrived in Minnesota from New Jersey (talk about culture shock!) I didn't know a soul, of course, and began to pay attention in class, do my homework, and actually care about school for the first time. And Jim Ryan was one of a handful of teachers at my new school who was instrumental in that transformation.

It was a unique time in my high school's history: Benilde, an all-boys high school (and David Carr's alma mater, by the way) had just merged with St. Margaret's, an all-girls school, when I arrived. (Benilde had narrowly avoided closing its doors altogether a few years before.) This was the mid-1970s, remember, and the school had a much more progressive approach to education. (It has since turned into a typically conventional Catholic high school; I hardly recognize it. You can read about my frustration here.) But the timing was right for me as I dropped my smart-ass attitude toward school and embraced learning for the first time in my life. I didn't go on to get a PhD or become a teacher or anything like that, but whenever I appreciate something a little loftier than, say, the Cubs' game, I can thank teachers like Mr. Ryan. I really wish I had said something like this to him when he was alive.

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