Feb 25, 2008

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

An Inquiry into Values
by Robert M. Pirsig

This is one book I know I didn't understand well. On the surface it is two things: the story of a father and son's road trip across the USA on a motorcycle, and a philosophical exploration of how we think and experience the world. One of the most curious things about it is something I haven't seen mentioned in other reviews, but I do want to speak of it.

***** S P O I L E R * A L E R T *****
Throughout the book, the father is chasing the ghost of his own past. Apparently when he was teaching rhetoric at a university he became so involved in the philosophical question "what is QUALITY?" that it literally drove him insane. He was committed to a hospital, where he received electromagnetic shock that literally "erased his personality" so that his memory is full of holes, his son recognizes that dad is not the same person anymore, and he calls the self he was before the incident by another name, Phaedrus. During the journey he visits the old university and runs into people who remember him as the professor and don't realize he's a stranger now. It's kind of weird. And the son is apparently showing signs of pending mental instability himself. All this is revealed in a few brief sentences that I totally missed the first time I read this book!

I liked reading the parts where Phaedrus tested his theories on his students, where quality is described as being a pervasive force that can permeate everything in one's life, where methods of problem-solving (illustrated via the motorcycle) were outlined. But most of these things didn't come until the second half or near end of the book. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the kind of book that made my head hurt, and I had to put it aside after every chapter or so. Let it absorb. Try and understand it. As you might have noticed, I've read five other books simultaneously because I had to keep getting away from Zen. But it was intriguing enough that I kept going back until I actually finished it.

Rating: 4/5                     436 pages, 1974


  1. A friend of mine read this book recently and struggled with it as well. Still, it does sound very intriguing, and I'd like to read it someday.

  2. I've seen this book on your side bar for a while now--and I've been curious to read your review. Kudos for getting through it! I don't know a lot about the book--is it fiction or non-fiction? The premise sounds interesting--but I've definitely got to be in a mood for this type of book.

  3. Nymeth- glad to know I'm not the only one who had a hard time with it!

    Trish- I shelve it with fiction, although reading it feels like non-. The thread of traveling with his son on a motorcycle is based on an actual trip the author took. Phaedrus and some of the other characters are fictional or composites of different real people. The philosophy? who can say? Thankfully the edition I read had a section in the back containing letters between the author and his editor before the book was published. The dialog threw a lot of light on the book for me.

  4. I remember this book being a big deal back in the 70's. I for some reason was drawn to it, just a couple of short months ago. I have just started it, and automatically am drawn to its deeper meanings. It is written in first person narraitive as the voice explains how interactions keep going, and observations, of how people do not care for things, and the more the point is brought out, the further back you seem to go. As most people mature, I am sure they see this push and pull pattern with elders, children, friends, and such. The take home message for me, is maintaince on ones motorcycle through life, is exaclty just that. It has to do with learning to be adequately prepared for some of lifes unexpected challenges. I am enjoying it, but sometimes it makes my head go ouch.


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