Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

By Robert Pirsig

Reviewed by Nick Sizer

If you have never heard of this book, or the effect it had on this author (or it seems any other citationer of it for that matter); I suggest you read some of the praise this book has recieved for it’s [from the back cover] “…pathfinding attempt to solve our contemporary ills” from the author’s Wiki before we continue.

I suggest this because, although at first appearing to be a cross between a university textbook & a self-help manual, the Book does delve – philosophically as well as technically – deeply into a juxtapositious array of diverse topics. Yes: these (in my opinion)do include Zen, automotive reparations, working practices of universities (from the author’s first-hand experience during the nineteen-fifties) & relationship-building skills (the last one if only by example! An example of the author’s sense of humour?). If you’re unsure what the hell I’m on about, perhaps a good idea to do so anyway?…

At this point, I think I’m safe to start the review [smiles]

First published in 1974, the Book quickly became popular & went on to be published in four countries; eventually engenderingtwo sequels & a “Guidebook”; it covers a partially cross-country journey (on motorcycles) though the North-western United States of America by the author, his son Chris & their two neighbours.

Pirsig’s photos of the trip
(hosted by USCA.edu’s Prof. Henry Gurr, with thanks!)

Although stating the Book’s distance from orthodox Zen Buddhist practice & stating “It’s not very factual on motorcycles either”, Pirsig manages to keep a running narrative – that of the trip; interspersed with first-person monologues into metaphysics & technical writing, besides those subjects already mentioned.

Although highly engaging, these skirmishes appear to be part of the writer’s inner-most thoughts as he drives across road, field & prairie: a welcome insight into what initially appears to be a novelisation of a holiday diary. Not a great start for anyone reading for intellectual-escapism or plain entertainment! Fortunately the more intellectual part of the Book concatenates with the emotive & itself intriguing narrative, successfully showing its relevance.

As the book progresses (inside “part two”), it is revealed the author was previously a University lecturer as part of the English department. Lecturing on rhetoric at the University of Montana at Missoula; he was in attendance during a state-wide “…outbreak of ultra-right-wing politics like that which occurred in Dallas, Texas, just prior to President Kennedy‘s assassination” (see footnote 1) & the prohibition of one of the professors there from making any kind of speech on campus. This kind of discord is set as the background to Pirsig’s initial professional life, following his time as a laboratory scientist aged 15 (with a recorded IQ of 170) at the University of Minnesota High School; failing his course and leaving two years later; philosophising atop the Absaroka Mountain-range; and returning from WWII-era Korea aged 20 to then obtain a degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota. There are more events covered, all of which set up an introduction to a character vital to both the monologues & the narrative: Phædrus.

Why Pirsig chose one of his protagonists to be named after a character Plato used is mysterious; however further knowledge of the piece in question (as well as the above timeline – see footnote 2) I find amusing, which I’m sure isn’t helpful [nudge wink etc]. In case of a hint, I’d suggest pirsig’s discussion of “quality”

Besides Pirsig’s abundant yet paradigmic inference of deeply intellectual concepts, there is also a subtle evidence of great writing-skill throughout the book. To read a list of his skills & experiences is not quite enough to demonstrate it; I still find myself re-reading the book to remember the separated yet detailed focus he imbued into it’s pages. How Pirsig deals with Chris and the subsequent inherent difficulties (dare I use the word dilemma?); how the inner-workings of a Honda CB360 can be related to the decision-making cognitive process; how “square” people really are; and how to spot a rubbish mechanic. All of these are featured relevantly, and shared with the experiences Pirsig faces along the trip in a way that makes this reviewer wonder what his personality would be like were he to speak everything he thought. Did I mention Phædrus receives ECT?

Not one to hold back if the science-journal writing-style confuses you; Pirsig does do admirably to explain which “high-country” (see footnote 3) he has travelled into at all times, though I do find it hard to read this book near a conversation (specially screaming children [Grrr!]). You have been warned.


  1. p.150
  2. Search for “September 60”
  3. p. 128

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