Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died last week. He only wrote two books in his life, and few remember the second, but that first one captured the zeitgeist of the early 70s and was an influence to people ranging from NBA Champion Phil Jackson to Nobel Prize winner Orhan Palmuk.
When I was younger, I used to claim I was the only person who had actually read all of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Of course that isn’t true, but Pirsig’s famous book, which on the surface is about a motorcycle trip across the west with his son, has such a great title—one of the best in publishing history*—that it’s easy to imagine multitudes drawn to that siren song of a title only to be dashed upon the dense and rocky philosophy inside the book.
Pirsig claimed that the book was turned down more than 100 times before it was accepted by a publisher. There’s a reason for that. On the other hand, the novel spent more than a decade on the best seller list, and there’s a reason for that, too.
So is it worth revisiting?
In a 1975 review for the New York Times, Edward Abbey declared himself “impressed but not overawed” by the book. He described the book as “part novel, part autobiography,” adding that “it is also a kind of doctoral dissertation in the realm of ideas.” The intent of the book, Abbey wrote, was “to splint and heal what he sees as compound fractures between our thinking and feeling, science and art, reason and emotion, our outer and our inner selves.”
To be honest, I can’t say I loved the book when I read it, although it has stuck with me in a significant way. I have two distinct memories of the book, one bad, one good. I remember the main character being kind of a jerk to his son. And there is a quote that I’ve been repeating to myself (and as it turns out, mis-remembering) for more than twenty years: The Buddha is in everything.
Having reread part of the novel this week, I found that the real quote (a rebuttal to someone who thinks they can’t fix a motorcycle) is actually, “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or the petals of a flower.”
It’s rare that you read something that actually changes the way you think, but reading those words did that to me.
In his New York Times review, Abbey had this to say: “He begins with the issue inescapable in 20th-century America: the apparent conflict between technology and nature, between the machine and human nature. This duality leads by analogy to a hierarchical series of apparent opposites. I say ‘apparent’ because in the course of his 400 pages Pirsig attempts to show us that these conflicts, which he sees as the source of the well-publicized contemporary malaise (and when so many think they are sick then they are truly sick) can be resolved into a higher and hopeful reunification.”
So is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance worth revisiting? If you read what Abbey had to say and thought yes!, then it probably is. If you thought it was a bunch of hooey palooey, then you could probably pass.
I'm still glad I read it.
(*)For more great titles in publishing history, see Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and others.