Sunday, July 5, 2009

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
© 1974 Robert M. Pirsig
417 pages

I prefer reading anonymous books -- that is, books that don't really have a reputation. This is not one of those: I've heard of it at various intervals throughout my life, typically touted as being profound or (as the author describes it in his afterword) "culture-bearing". The title itself reminds me of a phrase I've only heard in Only Begotten Daughter, "hermeneutics of the ordinary". (Julie Katz's father is described as wanting to write a book with said title on the meaning of everyday things.) I predicted that this would be about the intersection of philosophy and everyday life, and I had the general impression that it involved a road trip. While my prediction was somewhat accurate and that general impression was correct, that doesn't quite sum up the book. The author introduces it as a "Chautauqua", a...lecture of sorts about things that matter. The book covers what is described as a month-long motorcycle trip across the United States, and Pirsig's recollections of this are intermixed with lectures on various subjects. Pirsig will often use his memories to set up the lecture, combining the two: for instance, while crouched beside his bike in South Dakota in a troubleshooting attempt, he talks at length about the scientific method, logic, categories, and organization. When approaching the mountains of Colorado, he uses them in a somewhat poetic sense to muse on the few people who have climbed to the highest steeps of thought, to a point where they are lost in meaning and meaningless.

The road memoir and the lecture series are the dominating threads in this novel, but contained within the lectures are biographical episodes about a character named Phaedrus. At first, I thought this was a Greek thinker who Pirsig was referencing in his lectures, but Phaedrus started to comment on Enlightenment thinking and then appeared teaching in a northwestern university, at which point I began to realize he was some sort of alter-ego for the author: the character of who he once was. Adding to the memoir bits are Pirsig's recollections of dealing with his son, and what emerges is a strange (and for me) uncomfortable relationship. The accounts typically end with his son crying and Pirsig just sitting lost in his own world but wishing he could connect with his son. There are also a few dream-like episodes that are even stranger.

It's a busy book with a lot going on. He does talk about philosophy and everyday life, looking into the sense of alienation in the mid-20th century -- and he also spends a lot of time talking about philosophy in general. Some people tout the book as bringing the history of philosophy to people who would have never otherwise encountered it. It seems to inspire strong opinions, but I don't have one. I appreciated parts of it, disliked parts, and was completely lost in parts. I've been experiencing it for a number of days now -- reading, thinking on it, re-reading, re-thinking, arguing with myself -- but all I can say is that I don't know what to say about it. Although I've read all of its pages, I'm not done with it yet.


  1. My hippy law teacher leant me this ages ago.

    "This will change your life" she said. So I read it.

    She looked at me expectantly about 10 days later when I gave it back.

    "Thanks" I said "It didn't"

    From what I can remember it's certainly an interesting read - unusually I've read it twice - but I don't think it deserves its reputation.

  2. It's always awkward when a book means something important to one person and not much to the other.

  3. I enjoy your honest and heady takes on books. My son often refers to this book (in conversations, not for help) and I've never picked it up. I like Cyberkitten's comment.

  4. Like so many others, I have certainly heard much propoganda about this book. I have intentionally not read it because I wonder if it has become one of those things where is no longer what it was intended to be. Not to mention my complete distaste with all things incorrectly called "zen".


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