I am not a very Zen person, and I have very little interest in motorcycle maintenance – so what on earth could have compelled me to read a book about both of those things? Well, Zen And The Motorcycle Maintenance holds the dubious honour of being the most-often rejected best seller. Robert M Pirsig’s manuscript was turned down 121 times before he found an editor happy to take a chance on his weird book, and even then expectations were low. It went on to top the best seller lists, and sell millions of copies worldwide.
I was reassured by the Author’s Note on my edition, which promises: “[This book] should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles either.” It seems Pirsig had a good sense of humour, and a knack for turning a phrase – both qualities I appreciate in an author.
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is an autobiographical story about a father-and-son motorcycle road trip across the United States, but in telling it, the narrator undertakes a philosophical odyssey and examines how we think and perceive the world. So, not exactly light reading.
As the “autobiographical” part of that summary suggests, Pirsig actually did undertake a 17-day journey with his son, Chris, from Minnesota to Northern California on the back of a Honda CB77. He also undertook the philosophical odyssey himself, too, but I’m hoping (for his sake) that there’s more than a little creative license in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, because things get dark.
In between legs of the trip, the narrator/Pirsig spends a lot of time talking philosophy to himself (in-text essays he calls Chautauquas). The philosophy is pretty basic stuff at first, until he turns to rhetoric and the Ancient Greeks in the final act. Reading Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is like taking a shaved-down Intro to Philosophy class. You could probably get about the same level of understanding from reading the Wikipedia page about the book. The urge to skim was strong as I was reading it, particularly once I passed the halfway mark. I found myself desperate to skip the philosophical meandering, and get to the road trip story.
It sounds like Pirsig would’ve been alright with that, though. He once said: “Two different books are commingled [in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance], one about ideas and the other about people. If a reader just wants to know about the people, that’s okay. It’s still a readable book.” Never thought I’d be a ‘people person’, but there you have it!
The philosophy stuff is linked to the road trip stuff by the narrator’s back story, and this is where Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance took a turn that I didn’t expect. It turns out the narrator has a history of mental illness, and personifies it in the form of Phaedrus. Phaedrus is both the narrator’s past self and his shadow self, a college professor who became crazed by his quest to understand what constitutes good writing, or ‘Quality’ as he calls it. The narrator/Phaedrus was detained and hospitalised, and treated (without consent) by electroconvulsive therapy, causing the apparent split between his two selves. He’s basically a middle-aged Holden Caulfield, with more delusions of intellectual insight.
But, as I said, the philosophy – and the back-story that informs it – kind of bored me, in the end. It was the road trip I was interested in, and the narrator’s relationship with his son. Given how closely Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance aligns with Pirsig’s own life and experience, I thought it was kind of brutal that he included the scenes where Chris shits his pants (twice! on one road trip! that’s why we pack more underwear than we need). Of course, this was overshadowed by the heart-wrenching Afterword, which reveals that Chris was murdered a few years after the book was published. Pirsig seemed to believe that his son was reincarnated in some fashion, by way of an accidental pregnancy with his second wife – if that brought him some comfort, I’m glad.
All told, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is a book I’d recommend to privileged white men who take themselves too seriously. For me? It was fine, but not one I’ll be re-reading.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance:
- “Don’t know what people see in this book other than the catchy title, but it is nothing squared. It is not good at philosophy and it’s not good at storytelling so you’ve been warned.” – Molly
- “Attempted to read this gobeldegook and never finished it. Some people like Limburger cheese but most find it stinks. This book has little to do with motorcycles. After reading some of the book, I finally realized that a mental case with half baked philosophy is the author! This book is like the emperor’s new clothes. I didn’t get it so I guess I’m not a intellectual snob.” – none
- “The first part is just a long string of examples of poor parenting. One really starts to feel bad for the son by the end of it. The second engages in the worst kind of sophistry, misrepresents Taoism, misrepresents Zen, and basically claims to be a distillation of all three. The author claims that reality itself is subservient to an “indefinable” substance called “quality”. It’s basically Plato’s abstract ideals only sloppier. It’s also worth pointing out that this has nothing to do with motorcycle maintenance. If you’re looking for that, there are plenty of online videos out there on other platforms.” – jason