In which I have trouble concentrating

Listening to: shuffling through the albums “It’s a Trap!” by Captain We’re Sinking; “Absolutely Not” by Lighten Up; “DISMOUNT” by The Holy Mess; and “Not Like This” by Iron Chic

Today, the most important part of this entry is the “Listening to:” note at the top.

It’s not because of the albums/bands listed (although I highly recommend checking them all out for some great punk music), but because of the fact that I am, indeed, listening to music while writing this entry.

And here’s why:


Full disclosure: I got the idea for this blog entry from Plinky.  I checked out the site when I wrote my first blog entry and realized I was severely lacking direction.  Serendipitously, this blog’s topic happened to be the default question of the day.  I won’t be surprised if future entries are inspired from there, too.

Earlier this year, I read for the first time Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.  I actually first bought the book from a thrift store  (Value Village, for those familiar with the place) during my freshman year of college, but didn’t get around to reading it until after graduation.  Go figure.  One of the things it made me realize–among many, many others–is that I should’ve taken more philosophy courses.

I’ll admit, parts of it were a huge challenge for me to read.  Certain parts that proved difficult, though, I felt shouldn’t have been–and were the direct result of what felt like a psychological experiment that Pirsig had just performed on me through proxy.

For those not familiar with the novel, it’s a philosophical journey taken by the main character through a chataqua to literally find himself while on a cross-country motorcycle road trip with his son.  Towards the very start of the novel, the narrator is talking about how humans interact with, reject and accept technology.  I wasn’t far into the second chapter when I read a line that would shape my reading experience for the rest of the novel:

“You can’t really think hard about what you’re doing and listen to the radio at the same time.”

For context, the narrator is speculating why motorcycle mechanics sometimes butcher the machine on which they’re working.  He says it’s because a person can’t concentrate on the radio and an important task harmoniously.

I found it ironic that I had headphones on and music going full blast as I read this.  But as soon as I did, as though it was some kind of hypnotic suggestion, my music seemed too loud.  It was impossible for me to concentrate on reading the novel and listening to the music at the same time.

I’ve always been a multitasker, and I’m even listening to music while writing this.  All through college, I would keep music on while studying.  Heck, I needed to have music on to successfully study.  But for the entire rest of that book, I couldn’t for the life of me listen to music and concentrate on what I was reading simultaneously.

Since then, as I read on the bus to and from work, I no longer keep headphones in while I read.  Maybe Pirsig made me aware of an idea that had been dormant in me, or perhaps it was just a way of thinking that had never touched me before.  Whatever it was, I can no longer just hear music in the background.  I need to listen to the music I have on whether I like it or not.

It’s a concept that never concerned me before.  But why did I figure I could just hear or ignore all that sound going on in the background? If I’m specifically choosing that music because it’s what I want to listen to, what would make me think it would be so easily turned into muzak?

The strange part is, I have music on now (as noted in the especially important “Listening to:” section above) and if anything, it’s helping me concentrate.  Normally at work I don’t have music on in the background, but that’s only because it’s not conducive to my work environment–half the time I’m working with other audio and the other half I need to be able to speak and discuss with my coworkers. But while writing especially, I prefer having music on.  Yet now reading–even and especially for pleasure–is no longer accomplishable with tunes on in the background.

Maybe that’s the reason why it’s so easy to get songs stuck in my head.


– Picking it up and putting it down and picking it up again

– I got a song stuck in my head, and it’s playing over and over, and it’s… the economy! (I know, you’re thrilled and so engrossed that you can’t wait for more)

    • The Alternative Gentleman
    • July 20th, 2011

    Great post. I wish I would have taken more philosophy classes as well.

    My uncle gave me his copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance after I graduated high school but I didn’t get around to reading it until the summer before my senior year in college. The book really shook me; it bent the cover to reveal the seams of reality. In the end I was afraid I was going to end up insane as Phaedrus. Maybe that’s what great literature should do.

    If you get the chance, read the sequel- “Lila: An Inquiry into Morals”.

    Keep spreading the good word.


  1. I actually did a whole bunch of research on Pirsig after I read Zen and I plan on reading the sequel, thanks for the reminder! I feel like I should reread Zen first though; it’s definitely a novel that’s going to take more than one read to catch everything.

    I don’t want to generalize and apply the book to all of humanity, but I think we all have some Phaedrus in us. I’m a firm believer in the “norm” not existing; we all have “quirks,” it’s just that they come out a lot stronger in some people. It’s pretty awful that there was a time when they thought electro-shocking people was the best treatment, but if the novel makes you sympathize and empathize with the character, as well as consider certain traits in yourself, I think that’s the best thing an author can do for a reader.

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