When a student I remember reading a series of articles written by Richard Boston on best selling ‘cross over’ books*. Boston was primarily known as writer on beer but also an iconoclastic commentator on a range of subjects and here he was branching out to talk about four books which had reached out beyond their expected audiences and become a focus for public discussion. They were Desmond Morris ‘The Naked Ape’, R. D. Laing “The Divided Self’; Germaine Greer ‘The Female Eunuch’, Robert Prisig ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycles Maintenance’. There was a fifth best seller in the series, I had to look it up, and I was surprised to see was Watership Down by Richard Adams. This stuck out from the others as it was straight fiction and a cross over between children and adult audiences. (Watership Down was a story of rabbits, go to Wikipedia for details).
Leaving aside Watership Down are these best sellers still relevant today? Obviously so in the case of Germaine Greer. A qualified yes in the case of R.D. Laing, for though he fell out of favour, I think for very good reasons, this early book was ground breaking at least for students like myself. In brief he was explaining mental illness as a social construction, rather than a biological condition to be treated by drugs and worse. (If you do not fancy the book try the Ken Loach film In Two Minds which explicitly inspired by Laing presents this thesis clearly in a ‘fictionalised documentary’ style, it is on You Tube). What about Desmond Morris? He was trying to show how that our behaviour is in many ways akin to that of animals, particular to apes, for example we don’t so much fall in love but in engage in courtship and mating rituals, we do not so much bring up but rear children and so on. Naked Ape was first published in 1967 and even then was a last hurrah for behaviourism. Boston saw this and, as he put it, Morris might be able to describe all sorts of behaviour but he had had absolutely no feel for how it was to be human.
This leaves Prisig and Zen and the Art. The book is often described as an unnamed Author’s two week motorbike journey largely through the back roads of USA with his son Chris and, for the first part, with two friends. It is not clear to the reader if the book is fictional or semi fictional or straight autobiography and as the journey goes on the Author offers numerous philosophical discussions, principally on Classical Greek philosophy and its contemporary relevance as well as on technology and life in general. For example there is a lot there about the distinction between a classical (or technical) view of the world and a romantic or more aesthetic appreciation, the key idea is that: Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic.”And what we need is an integration of both ways of looking at the world, to know how a machine works but to use that machine for ethical ends. To achieve this kind of integration required you to be attentive to what was happening around you and there was a repeated contrast between watching the world and being in the world. The car versus bike was a metaphor for this:
The style is very simple, it begins:
Boston rightly pointed out that the writing had a ‘cat sat on the mat’ style, but this more or less worked. I have to say it worked for me too at the time – it did not for others and if it irritates you don’t read beyond the first page, it won’t get any better for you. Boston also pointed out that Zen and the Art was an unusual blend of fiction and commentary on the world. In fact the philosophising is held together well by the Author’s back story, in part a story of someone who drove themselves mad with philosophical investigation, and you get the impression that the journey is about reaching an accommodation with his past. While this story within a story is the over-riding strength of the book, Prisig can be accused of having it both ways – he always has the ‘get out’ that he is describing a state of mind rather than making a claim to new and original insight.
The popularity of Zen I think was three fold. First it tapped into a story about the alienation not just experienced sitting in a car watching the world go by but something of a wider critique of the decline of civic life made famous by Putnam in Bowling Alone* (arguably another corss over book). Second, it offered a shift in how we thought of technology, the book was ‘counter cultural’ but repositioned technology not as something to be rejected as ‘corporate america’ but something that could be used to for self fulfilment. It was a stance that Apple of course pulled off spectacularly well at about the same time. Third, in spite of its counter cultural credentials it was about seeking change at a personal rather than political level and reflected a form of accommodation with the status quo after the tumultuous period of the late 1960’s. These three preoccupations were large American but they must have crossed over to English audiences, at least I remember being quite hooked on the book and I had no interest in motorbikes. .
Is Prisig still relevant today? Yes but I would say for different reasons. At least for educational audiences it deals with two very modern notions: the idea of flow * (put simply the concept of being absorbed in the task you are setting yourself) and a sense of mindfulness – to be aware of your own body and where you are. The book seems to be saying that to live a sane life you need to find something that matters to you, follow it through, but attend to what is around you at the same time. Not exactly profound but Prisig explained it well. A further thing I noticed now about the book, but did not at the time, is that there is a lot about father and son relationships which I now think was quite prescient.
Re-reading Boston I wonder who we would have today as cross over books? Michael Moore is one of the best examples argumentative authors crossing over to wider audiences and perhaps Naomi Klein. If looking for parallels of Boston’s books. Harry Potter is an obvious example of a cross over between adult child fiction though on a much larger scale than the rabbits mentioned earlier. It is difficult for anyone to match the ‘shock of the new’ that Greer managed in the Female Eunuch even if the questions she posed are as relevant as ever. There is no exact parallel with Desmond Morris but our fascination with the animal world continues, what hits you though is that through Attenborough we are invited to see animals as having group intelligence, they are much more than simple behaviour organisms; they are more like us, than we are like them. In terms of R.D. Laing and Prisig I cannot think of parallels here, Prisig did write a second book but it was predictably dire.
*I had a problem accessing the complete texts but try the online archive of the Guardian August 1976.
*Putnam, Robert D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
*Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row.
I haven’t read it yet, but Thomas Picketty’s book “Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century” has topped the best-seller lists and created a buzz beyond the economist community.
Yes – will see if it lasts, interesting in all these books why one book takes off while many which say similar things do not.