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.