I just finished this yesterday, and the ending just came up and slapped me.
The line “That’s true. I never realized it. All this time he’s been staring into my back.” was just amazing. For Chris to have spent the entire trip like that, while his father was having these epiphanies, was just such a great way to end things.
More importantly, though, I think the afterword (I have the edition from 1985 or so, the paperback with the pink cover). Honestly, I don’t see how the book could have had the impact it did without the afterword, particularly Chris’s death.[/spoiler]
The “book” portion of the book – the narrative – never did much for me. If it were not for the philosophical seminar on epistemology and metaphysics that is wrapped in the narrative, I would have long since forgotten that I had ever read it.
The narrative is essential for the sake of continuity with his philosphy.
You’ll recall his discussion of classical mode and the knife of distinction, yes?
And his criticism of conventional “pure” classical-mode writing that discards romantic notions of quality?
He could hardly make this point effectively in his own thesis if it were written in “pure” classical mode, right? So his story of the author himself in the story’s present doing the motorcycle trip and sorting all this philosophical sand out in his mind – that and the backstory of himself (Phaedrus) working it out the first time as an academic and getting in too deep – provides the landscape and you get to see him in the act of sorting the sand, coming up with the theory of meaning and understanding and knowledge that, if it were written in purely classical mode, would constitute his thesis.
Which is to say that it is interesting and useful (perhaps even important) to know for the additional light it casts on his theories, but I can’t imagine reading the book for the entertainment value of the narrative.