When I write a review, I must decide whether to take the classic or the romantic approach. The classic approach sees the book in terms of its underlying form. So I can divide the book into components such as narrative (plot), character, style, themes, and so on.
Let’s take Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) by Robert M. Pirsig as an example. First, I look at the plot. The narrator (Pirsig) takes his son, Chris, on a motorcycle trip across the U.S. This story is told in the present tense, and forms the core of the narrative. But there is also the story of an academic named Phaedrus, who develops a new system of thought for handling the concept of Quality, but in the process suffers a mental breakdown. This story is written in the past tense, indicating that it occurred before the events of the main narrative, and it becomes clear that Phaedrus and the narrator are the same person. In addition to these stories, the book is also a philosophical treatise on Quality and how it relates to our understanding of the world in classic and romantic terms.
Now I examine the style of the book. It is best described as functional. In the hands of a lesser writer this book may have read like a philosophy textbook, but, though simple, Pirsig’s discourse is readable, and enjoyable — and that is perhaps his greatest achievement.
I have been following the classic approach. But now I want to look at the immediate artistic appearance of the book. This is the romantic method. The book does have a certain sparse beauty. And although the narrator initially appears arrogant, he gradually appeals to the reader’s emotions as he displays increasing vulnerability. But overall, the romantic appeal of the book is limited. It speaks more to the rational intellect than to the emotions.
I have looked at Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in both classic and a romantic terms, but does it possess that intangible, immediate appeal that we sense before analysis? That which Pirsig calls Quality?
Surely, it does.