Before reviewing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, let me mention that most people will either love or hate the book. Few will be indifferent.
Those who will love the book will include those who enjoy philosophy, especially those who are well read in that subject; people who ride and maintain their own motorcycles; readers who are interested in psychology, particularly in terms of the mass hypnosis of social concepts; individuals who are curious about the line we draw between sanity and insanity; and people who want to think about how to deal with troubling personal situations, especially as a parent. As someone who has all of these interests and perspectives, the book fit my needs very well.
Those who will dislike the book are people who like lots of action in their novels, dislike the subjects described above, and who want easy reading. This book is very thick with concepts, ideas, metaphors, and layering which reward careful reading and thought. Most text books are considerably easier to read and understand. Few modern novels are any more difficult to read from an intellectual and emotional perspective.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has several story lines that intertwine to create a synthesis of thought and experience:
- a father and young son take a motorcycle trip from the Midwest to California
- the father has an internal dialogue with himself about what he observes about the people around him and their engagement with life and technology
- the father attempts to reconstruct the ideas and perspective he had before being treated as a mental patient (which treatment destroyed and distorted his memory and personality)
- the father looks at the great philosophers of western and eastern civilization and attempts to integrate their thoughts into an aesthetic built around our ability to know quality when we see and experience it
- the father deals with the incipient signs of mental instability in his son and himself.
The book is almost impossible to characterize, but let me try anyway. Perhaps the closest book to this one is Hermann Hesse's Siddharta. At the same time, there is also a strong flavor of Zen and the Art of Archery. On the Road by Jack Kerouac covers some of the same intellectual and emotional territory. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men considers some of the same questions of personal perspective. In terms of challenging the constrictions of society, there is also an element of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit here.
What is most remarkable about the book is the way that it pinpoints the spiritual vacuum in the pursuit of more and shinier personal items. Unlike many books from this time, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance upholds a concept of nobility and worth connected to pursuing material progress in ways that reflect eliminating low quality and replacing it with high quality. Think of this as being like the joy of craftsmanship, compared to the dullness of the assembly line. By setting high standards, expanding those standards, sharing those standards with others, and inspiring people to experience life more fully, we can move forward spiritually as well as intellectually. The motorcycle maintenance details connect these abstractions back to the practical issues of every day, as we roll along across country with the author and his son dealing with the realities of keeping our bike running where the repair and parts options are very limited.
The book's afterward is particularly interesting, in which Mr. Pirsig opines about why this book has had such great and lasting appeal and tells you what happened after the book ends.
Ultimately, I felt uplifted by the high respect that Mr. Pirsig has for his readers. He takes us very seriously, thinks we are intelligent, and pays us the compliment of believing that we can learn to fundamentally change all of our perspectives and experiences.
After you finish this book (if you decide to read it), I suggest that you think about where you disengaged from the challenges, tasks, and people around you. Then, pick out one area and get deeply involved. As you master that one, take on another. And so on. Soon, you will have new and greater respect for yourself . . . and more rewarding relationships.
Get your hands dirty!
am 22. Juli 2000
A review of this book by me, or even a thoughtful critique,could add nothing to what has been so well-said in the numerouseloquent essays among the 200 below. Among the decisively best dozen, reviewer Barron T. Laycock, only a few reviews below, describes "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" about as well as it need be done. Another finely-drawn perspective is provided immediately below by reviewer Cicha1994, who gets to the bottom of Pirsig's magic of delivering an incredibly complex synthesis with timely spoonfuls of sugar thusly:
"Mr. Pirsig has an uncanny sense of timing, and he never allows the heavier passages to labor on too long. This is avoided by craftily interspersing his philosophical discourse amongst very down-to-earth and charming observations made during a motorcycle trip ..."
Not daring to venture into the rarified air of the erudite reviews already here, I humbly offer a more fundamental observation, one that is "down-to-earth as fertilizer," as we say.
How I came to read this book the first time -- of how many? -- I can't imagine. I have no interest in Zen, never owned a motorcycle and so needed no advice about keeping one humming. What I found I did have very strong interests in was everything Persig had to say.
"Zen and the Art..." was an immediate best-seller when it was published 26 years ago. That couldn't have inspired my interest in it, for I have instinctive misgivings about best-sellers. But I did read it and have been all the better for it. Every subsequent reading has opened a little door or niche missed before.
Call any used book store and mention of "Zen and the Art..." and you'll get immediate recognition of it, often a comment like, "Oh, yeah. That Robert Persig book. No, we can't keep them." Still selling like crazy, after all these years.
There is a positively bone-chilling aspect about "Zen and the Art...". The millions who have read this supreme intellectual and artistic masterpiece -- many, many of whom, like me, were profoundly enriched by it -- came perilously close to being denied the experience. If memory serves, Persig's manuscript was rejected 122 times before William Morrow picked it up (probably after having also rejected it a few times). That says volumes about the dismal state of publishing back then, an industry that is in even blacker depths today.
am 20. Juni 2000
Despite the book's title, Pirsig's journey is primarily one through the history of Western philosophy, from the pre-Socratics through Plato, Aristotle, the 18th century empricists, and 19th century idealists. On this level alone, the book succeeds in being one of the most accessible and reliable treatments of the field. But the text is also a critique of the whole Western "logocentric" tradition, with its emphasis on reason, or "dialectic." Like Kant ("Critique of Pure Reason") or Kierkegaard ("Concluding Unscientific Postscript"), Pirsig uses reason to expose the limitations of reason. And what does he replace it with? Not Eastern mysticism or Zen riddles but rhetoric. More than the classic rhetoricians that Pirsig exhalts or the 20th-century structuralists and post-structuralists (Barthes, Derrida, Foucault) for which Pirsig's narrative is practically an illustration, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" makes the case for language as the basis for all reality, for all that we think, experience and perceive. It's this conflict between dialectic and rhetoric that drives the narrative, realized in plain yet compelling prose that's capable of staying with the attentive reader for the rest of his or her lifetime. After reading the book twice, I was unable to look at the self, the world, at all things constructed by language in quite the same way. The least successful parts of the book, it seems to me, are the narrator's protracted discussions of the nature of "reality" as a moment inaccessible to human intellect and his somewhat naive, 1960's-style musings on the nature of "quality." Supposedly his English composition students were immediately able to know it when they saw it, thereby making it unnecessary for him as a teacher to talk about "standards" or to establish criteria. (The suspicion arises that Pirsig hasn't had a great deal of experience teaching students how to write.) Nevertheless, even when a cylinder occasionally misfires, this is a book worth reading carefully and more than once. Unfortunately, because of its "cult" status, many people seem to purchase the text but never finish it. Robert Redford owns the screen rights, but a reader would be ill-advised to wait for the movie version. The "visual" elements of the text--the motorcyle odyssey and troubled father-son relationship--are minor metaphors compared to the ambitious and largely successful intellectual quest.
am 12. Juli 2000
I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a college senior twenty-five years ago. I remember then being frightened by how this man's determination to pursue a philosophical idea to its conclusion, even if it were against the grain of established conventions of thinking, drove him insane. I was afraid deeper study and questioning might do the same to me. I know now, however, that I'm not insane. I also know that twenty-five years ago this story of a man and his son travelling by motorcycle from Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean took deep residence in my soul.
I've been a teacher now for twenty-three years, long enough to forget some of my initial influences. But, as I read this book all these years later, I realized that my philosophical view points, examples I use to illustrate ideas with my students, what I believe the purpose of an education is, and several other bits of pedagogy and ideology originated in Pirig's story.
I highly recommend this book, maybe especially if you are unread in philosophy and would like a readable, enjoyable, and provocative entree into the history and vocabulary of philosophy.
It's a deeply moving, intellectually stiumlating story. Its devotion to story-telling and philosophical inpuiry is indeed most rare.
am 16. Februar 1998
this book tries so blatantly to be metaphorical that it really ends up being quite shallow. The ironic thing is that if one has this opinion, dissenters simply say "you merely don't understand it". This angers me. I have spent much time studying Zen, and can find no correlations between this book and actual Zen tenents. If you disagree, please email me with your comments
am 15. März 1999
My 10-year-old son asked me what I wanted for Christmas last year, and I suggested two books I had known about for 20 years or more, but had never actually read: "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac, and "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert Pirsig. He got them both for me, and now, at age 47, I've read them both. Kerouac's book is a breathless, almost endless series of cross-country treks, written in a continuous "present" with little concept of a past or future.
"Zen", in contrast, is a book I wish I had read years ago, knowing full well I would not have understood or appreciated it until now. Pirsig's literary journey is careful and methodical, painstakingly documenting both the physical landscape through which he and his son are riding, and the elaborate philosophical landscape through which humanity has traveled in the last several millennia. It is a history of philosophy which ultimately rejects much of the Aristotelian analysis underlying Western scientific method. I hated philosophy and theology in college, for a variety of reasons, and wish I had this guidebook (and 40+ years of experience) handy as I sat through Metaphysics. Pirsig makes clear the seminal importance of many of the competing ideas of Eastern and Western philosophy, in ways I don't think any of my college professors could have. On a more personal note, Pirsig develops his complex line of thought while traversing the American west with his son Chris on the back of his motorcycle. His discourse with the reader is extensive, highly emotional and intensely personal, while his interaction with his son is almost non-existent. More than once I wanted to yell at Pirsig to stop the bike and talk to Chris instead, only to realize that my own conversations with my own son Chris were, in many ways, similarly perfunctory and self-limiting. In my opinion, no one can read this book without gaining some insight into their own soul, their own values and their place in the world.
am 12. Juni 1998
The book is revolutionary and has a certain timelessness about it. It is revolutionary as it questions the very essence on which our systems and beliefs are founded. It articulates a very strong case for the so called 'out of box' thinking and very logically picks holes in our current methodology of instruction and analysis. I read the book for the first time as a student some ten years back, and have read it about 5 times ever since. As a teacher, I found the section on 'grades' particularly useful and enlightening. Pirsig's analysis of the shortcomings of the present educational system is very succinct and strikes at the very root of our way of thinking and analysis. The book makes a very strong case for a definitive paradigm shift that shall help us to face the challenges of the coming century. In a lot of ways, the book is philosophical and some passages tend to be very heavy. Readers are advised to also go through the very thoroughly researched and well written guidebook that was presented to me by one of my American friends when he heard me recite an entire passage from the book verbatim sitting in a bar!! 'The Turning Point' by Fritjof Capra also makes a very similar point but his approach is more matter of fact and 'historical', Pirsig's is intuitive and compellingly sincere. Take your time over it, skip the difficult passages at first go, finish it once and you are bound to get back to it again and again. Happy reading. Mohit Misra Asian Institute Of Management, Philippines.
am 10. Juli 1998
I read this book as a psychology undergrad at age 20 and thought it was about mental illness. I read it again as a software analyst at age 30 and found that it's about quality, and that it contains relevant, useful, and powerful tools for solving quality problems in the real world.
The alienation with technology that Pirsig addresses is a bigger problem than ever. "Dummies" books are best sellers, and "web sites that suck" is a popular web site. The digital revolution is fraught with real-world quality problems, and Pirsig's metaphysics gives insight to their root causes. His metaphysics is of sound philosophical construct, and that's why it still works decades later.
The book is not about Zen, art, or motorcycles, so please don't mind the title. The protagonist is a rhetorician. The title is a rhetorical tool. Pirsig defines a "classic-romantic split" that explains why we have so many technology products that are more frustrating than useful. He argues that quality can't be found in objects (products) or subjects (critics), which explains why evaluating quality is difficult.
I'm reading it again this summer at age 37, and it's helping me rebuild my world view in response to the changing times, which is the primary useful value of philosophy. Next, I'm going to re-read the sequel, "Lila" which, despite its less interesting plot, has an even better explication of the "metaphysics of quality" than ZAMM.
am 11. Juni 1999
Many, many people have recommended this book to me as "life changing" etc and there certainly is a big enough following to the book to hype it.
There are some good ideas in this book: the ideas on quality versus quantity, some dialectic stuff, etc. However, all the ideas are kind of like ornaments on a Christmas tree. They're decorative and sparkle, but the tree they're hung on is drab and uninteresting. The novel never does much with these ideas other than toss them out at you like confetti.
As a piece of fiction, there's not much of a story and I really didn't care much about the "philosopher" at the center of the book. He comes across like a windbag - repeating the same ideas at the drop of a hat.
I suspect that anyone who comes to this book full of new-age angst will bring with them all the post-modern spirituality epiphanies they need and attribute them to reading this book. For the rest of us though, it would be better to either read a good fiction novel or purchase a serious book on philosophy.
am 1. April 2000
I tried to read ZAMM years ago and didn't get past the first chapter. My mindset was impatient and I wasn't prepared to think about the issues he was raising. One of Pirsig's classic gumption traps, I guess.
Something told me to try it again, so I checked out a copy of the original edition from the library. I just finished the book and now I'm buying my own copy. Prisig is one of those rare authors who can express emotions so subtly and naturally that you actually feel them rather than just read about them. He also has a remarkable way of blending the past, the present and the deep thoughts of two distinct points of view into one smoothly flowing narrative. Just when things might start to drag he switches gears (no pun intended) and lets us all just ride along for a while.
This isn't the type of book that everyone will read straight through, or that everyone will appreciate right away. And there's really no reason to force it: Put it down, come back later, read back over the part you didn't quite get. There's no hurry. And when you finally arrive at the destination, the end of that cross-county motorcycle ride, and contemplate the remarkable ideas you've picked up along the way you'll smile, think back, and realize how much you enjoyed the trip.