Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

by Robert M. Pirsig

I must say, this year in reading’s been an interesting one for me. I mean, it’s had its ups and downs––nowhere near as many books that I love, love, LOVED like last year, but not one but two where I had something akin to a religious experience while reading. The first was Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and now Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though the experience was hugely different between the two. While the exact why behind the former is a bit more elusive, this one had a lot to do with the author’s ability of expression and the way it influenced my own, but I’ll get into that in a bit.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about our unnamed narrator, the Pirsig stand-in, travelling across the United States with his son, Chris, in an attempt to both reconnect––to mend their fractured relationship––and to retrace pieces of his former life. Previously a teacher of English Rhetoric and a student of Philosophy, the narrator’s mad search for understanding left him mentally unravelled and landed him in an insane asylum where electroconvulsive therapy irreversibly changed him. The book’s superficial journey serves to contain a philosophical discussion about Quality, what it means and how it serves to influence our lives. The deeper the narrator explores this idea and the more he sees the places and the people he used to know, the stronger he becomes haunted by the ghost of his former self.

The main strength I found in Pirsig’s writing is in his ability to verbalize difficult concepts. The most effective passages in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance involve things I can feel but have up to this point been unable to put into words, and they come across as hugely insightful. However, to accomplish this, the author is often overt in his explanations, which can be hurtful to the text when used on concepts I already explicitly understood going in. When this happened over long sections, the reading most definitely became tedious, but it remained worthwhile because Pirsig continually arrived at something thoughtful––frequently profound, even. Interestingly, I didn’t always find myself agreeing with what Pirsig was suggesting, but he presented things in a way that forced me to really consider them before moving on, and things not only ended up sticking with me as a result, but I also started finding myself better able to focus my thoughts and form them into something more lucid at the end of it all.

So, while it’s not perfect, as I see it, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance basically uses a well-crafted narrative to help make sense of things, and that’s pretty cool.