When I was a senior in high school I went to visit my Uncle Mack and Aunt Corinne at their home outside NYC. They were fascinating and unpredictable relatives for several reasons. For one, they lived in urban areas far from Ohio. For another, they tried to treat me like an adult. Furthermore, they liked to talk about things other than sports, TV shows, or music. My aunt was tireless in encouraging me to improve my vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. My uncle, on the other hand, always had a recommendation of a book that might help me to become a better, or at least more thoughtful, person.
One of the books that Uncle Mack recommended was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I remember reading it and thinking, “Wow, this book is weird!” There was a kind of creepy tension to the text, because the narrator had admitted mental problems, he seemed to be struggling in his interaction with this son, and you just hoped that he would make it through his motorcycle trip without having a relapse and being institutionalized. It may well be that the weird vibe of the book helped to make some of its message more memorable, but in any case it is one of those books that had an enormous impact on me. I am not alone in this regard. It has now been 35 years since Zen was first printed, and Wikipedia states that it is regarded as the most widely read book about philosophy, ever.
I particularly recall the portion of the book where the narrator discusses his view that “quality” is a kind of innate characteristic that people can recognize intuitively. He relates an incident where an English class reads well-written pieces and poorly written pieces, without having received special training in sentence structure, foreshadowing, character development, or other technical aspects of writing. Notwithstanding the lack of such training, the class was easily able to distinguish the high-quality pieces from the low-quality pieces. That particular concept, and anecdote, has stuck with me, and I often refer to the book when I talk to associates at the firm about legal writing and the need to strive for “quality” in their work. If my comments about writing have had any positive impact on the work product of our lawyers, the firm and its clients have Robert M. Pirsig to thank.