I’m wrestling with a very difficult decision. It goes against every fiber of my being. It violates a key value that was instilled in me as a child, and has me questioning where the madness will end if I tip over this first domino. That’s right, I’m trying to decided if I should stop reading a book I’m halfway through and hating.
I’m reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I picked up Robert M. Pirsig’s famous work with high hopes. Four decades after its publication, the book is considered a classic. Fresh off Aldous Huxley’s fantastic (if slow) “Island,” I was ready for more thought-provoking writing, and, given my interest in philosophy, finally getting around to reading this staple of American literature seemed like a great decision. The New York Times called it “exhilarating!”
I call it “awful.”
The autobiographical story is set during the multi-week motorcycle trip of a father (the narrator), his intellectually/emotionally-challenged son, and two friends. The travel-log and father/son parts of the book are only window dressing though, as the book is primarily concerned with the mental wanderings of the father as he figuratively does philosophical battle with his former self that he now only remembers in fragments due to electroshock therapy. The travel-log and father/son parts are actually interesting, but the philosophy aspect of the book dominates. Wait, dominates is too weak a word. The philosophy aspect of the book torturously squeezes all joy, insight, fun, and enjoyment out of the book.
As much as I dislike the book, I’m disliking even more the idea of quitting. You see, maybe you’ve heard, but quitters never win and winners never quit. In our household growing up, you didn’t quit something you started. That might have happened in other houses, but not our’s. Neighbors and friends started and stopped hobbies and extracurricular activities as often as they changed clothes. Not this kid. I started martial arts and band in elementary school, and I was still kicking and playing in one form or another through college. My sister danced or cheered from before kindergarten through college. When my sister quit band after three years, though, it caused a minor family crisis. My mother still tells the story with anguish in her voice, painfully recounting that my sister had just received a band member of year award the year before. The year before! Honestly, I’m not sure my mother has ever fully respected my sister after that fateful decision. Quitter!
Quitting isn’t easy, even if your household didn’t lock you into longer contracts than cell phone companies. No one wants to be a quitter, but how long must one endure the disliked, unwanted, or uninteresting? How long must you try out the new hobby before you decide that you actually hate it? 1 day, 4 months, or 7 years? At what point can you drop the new extracurricular activity? After a few days, or not until you’re the vice president of something? Even the great Kenny Rogers doesn’t help us. He reminds us that we have to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, but he never gets to the verse where he explains how to figure out the difference.
I’ve read 240 pages of a 400 page book, and I’ve read enough to know where the story is going with a fair amount of certainty. I’m not motivated to read any more and can’t foresee caring what else happens. Perhaps most importantly, the draw of other books is stronger than the draw to this book. Maybe, at the end of the day, there is no formula to knowing when to quit. You have to trust yourself to make that call. Maybe the point of not quitting as a kid is so you know what commitment is, and, as an adult, you’ll know when it’s okay to end that commitment.
In the end, I come back to my sister’s clarinet. She threw away a bright musical future, but, to her credit, she’s never looked back. If she can give up the clarinet the year after winning a major award, I can be strong enough to walk away from my book.
I just hope my parents can look me in the face next time we meet.