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Book Review – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Last updated on 2014-09-07

I heard a lot about this books many years ago and never got my hands on it, but after my latest streak of philosophy reading, it came back to my head, and with amazon giving me the possibility to read a book whenever I want, I started the journey.

The book starts pretty simple, a story, nothing deep. A parent traveling with his kid in a road trip he calls a “Chautauqua”. But then things get complicated, with Phaedrus getting into the story, trying to find the meaning of quality. And the search gets complicated with each turn of a page… and the amount of concentration needed to keep following the book.

And what exactly is quality? I tried to understand if he finally found the answer, but I don’t think he really found it. But there are some interesting insights

“No academic discipline is without both substantive and methodological aspects. And Quality had no connection that he could see with either one of them. Quality isn’t a substance. Neither is it a method. It’s outside of both. If one builds a house using the plumb-line and spirit-level methods he does so because a straight vertical wall is less likely to collapse and thus has higher Quality than a crooked one. Quality isn’t method. It’s the goal toward which method is aimed.”

As a software developer, I found the search for Quality very related to coding. There are many ways to write code, and most will agree that there is “quality” in the code. And while most people can’t say exactly how “quality” code is written (although some guidelines do help), most people that read a piece of code can tell you if it has quality or not.

The book also bashed the modern Academia as it is today, where students are taught to learn what is taught and not to ask themselves new questions all the time. As a former member of the academy (full time PhD student), I sadly agree with most of what the book has to say.

Overall, a very good read. The first half of the book (more or less) is easy to read, and after that it gets more complex. But worth it.

Some quotes I really liked:

“The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling”

“I believe in ghosts. Modern man has his ghosts and spirits too, you know.” “What?” “Oh, the laws of physics and of logic…the number system…the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real.”

“This is the ghost of normal everyday assumptions which declares that the ultimate purpose of life, which is to keep alive, is impossible, but that this is the ultimate purpose of life anyway, so that great minds struggle to cure diseases so that people may live longer, but only madmen ask why. One lives longer in order that he may live longer. There is no other purpose. That is what the ghost says.”

The range of human knowledge today is so great that we’re all specialists and the distance between specializations has become so great that anyone who seeks to wander freely among them almost has to forego closeness with the people around him

“This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated”

To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow

The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality

Published inThoughts


  1. I see references to ZAMM along the leaning curve from programmer to designer. It is a strong story. The message is an individual thing. I remember a mate of mine was paralleling the ZAMM with the Tao by Lau Tzu. And “of course”.

    The intention, and I think we who’ve read it can agree it is, “an enquiry into values”. I like the often quoted comment from Oscar Wilde who never met Prisig and may have like him: “A cynic know the price of everything, and the value or nothing.”, when this consideration arises.

    Two things always interest me, ZAMM is mentioned. What do you think the influence of ZAMM was on your “view of values”? Second how does the ZAMM tome fit with three seminal books/articles of: “The Mythical Man Month” (1975), “Marketing Myopia” (Levitt, 1960) and “The Art of Software Testing” (1979)?

    These days, I also point people to Michael Porters article: “Strategy and the Internet” (2001). Unfortunately for the world of engineering at large, I believe that: “Marketing Myopia” (Levitt, 1960) still describes the status quo, if not exemplar projects. In context of ZAMM, I urge people to consider the significant influence of entropy in projects. There could well be a corollary to the Third Law of Thermodynamics to say: “engineering projects tend towards the essence of Marketing Myopia over time”.

    As software people, I urge you to delve into the subsequent book: LILA, and enquiry into morals.


    It probably isn’t on the must read list, but ought to be. We actually don’t live in a moral vacuum, despite illusions that technology is amoral. The Mythical Man Month is interesting, because the account of Donald Knuth’s efforts on the first ALGOL-60 compiler was not something ‘ordinary’. And closer to the tales of Hercules . . . (reportedly)

    • Thanks for the interesting comment. I have to say that the book didn’t much change my view of values. Nada. Zero.
      I also haven’t read “Marketing Myopia” and “The Art of Software Testing”, but I’m adding them to my reading list per your recommendation. So much to read but so little time :-(.

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