Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – ( book )


In letters, several people mentioned the connection to the 1974 book  Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I first read it in 1981,when it was assigned to a friend in college, and I have returned to read it again every 10 years or so. It is different each time; obviously the book never changes, just my perspective does. The novel is something of a yardstick against my thoughts.

The book is very much like The Ugly American in the sense that both are endlessly used as a reference by people who have never read, nor are even acquainted with the contents. Pirsig stated outright that the book has nothing to do with Buddhism or motorcycles; it is a vigorous work of philosophy, specifically targeting the value of quality. It is widely respected as an intellectual and artistic masterpiece.

It says something about professional critics that the manuscript was rejected for publication 121 times. It has since sold 5 million copies. It is a difficult read. Pirisg has a 170 IQ, a number that happens in only 1 out of 150,000 people. He patiently explains, but does not dumb down the subject. The storyline is roughly autobiographical, and he leads you through his descent into madness and the cruelty of suffering that fate in the 1960s. The immediate setting of the narrative is on a motorcycle trip with his son and two friends in the Western U.S.  He is revisiting both the questions that drove him and the places he lived in his former life, the time before he was ill.  He rides with his young son, whom he fears may have the same path ahead of him.

The book’s success was not a harbinger of peace in Pirsig’s Life. His son was murdered in 1979 and Pirsig lived most of his life in seclusion, writing only one other book. He is 85 years old now and lives quietly in Maine. This strikes me as a contrast to how much light and illumination he put into countless lives of others, almost all of this for people he would never meet. -ww.

Robert Pirsig on a Motorcycle

Above, Robert Pirsig and his son Chris on the trip that was reflected in the narrative. I did not see this photo until 20 years after I first read the book. Pirsig is a powerful writer, and the setting he vividly described became imprinted in my mind. When I first saw the photo I had a very strong sense that I had seen the exact spot before, although I have never been to Montana. I have returned to this photo many times and thought about how his son only lived 10 more years.

2 Replies to “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – ( book )”

  1. Have not read this book yet, however it has been recommended to me by several friends, each of whom I have great respect for… Now you’re talking about it. I have also included ‘Trustee from the Toolroom” by Nevil Shute on my list, similarly recommended. Like many, I have not made enough time to read even though I read more than most; and this, even when my TV watching has been reduced to almost nothing. Guess I am fearful that reading will infringe upon shop time spent building airplanes…

  2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a story that can be taken on so many levels: mental illness, fatherhood, basic philosophy, the way that postgraduate education proceeds, and the way that we perceive the world around us and how things work.

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