Sunday, January 19, 2020

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (novel #141)

To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycle maintenance is to miss the Buddha entirely. ~ narrator


This book is a bit difficult to categorize. It is a fictionalized autobiography told in story form by the first-person narrator, Pirsig of course, though he never identifies himself, not by that name at least. Pirsig has this to say about the book in the introduction:

…it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either.


It is also difficult to synopsize. At first, it is very much what the title describes – the narrator’s application of Zen principles to motorcycle maintenance, set during a cross-country motorcycle trip with the narrator’s adolescent son Chris, and friends John and Sylvia Sutherland.


The narrative recounts the places, people, and events of the trip, interrupted frequently by the narrator’s Chautauquas – philosophical discussions on numerous subjects, but mostly on the concept of “Quality”.


Slowly, the reader realizes the trip is revisiting old places, people, and events from the narrator’s past – from before he went insane.


The narrator recalls these vestiges through the memories of who he was before – before insanity – the person Phaedrus.

He [Phaedrus] was single-mindedly pursuing a truth he felt was of staggering importance to the world.

All he had left was his one crazy lone dream of Quality, a map of a route across the mountain, for which he had sacrificed everything. Then after the electrodes were attached, he lost that.

I think his pursuit of the ghost of rationality occurred because he wanted to wreak revenge on it, because he felt he himself was so shaped by it. He wanted to free himself from his own image.


The narrator, perfectly sane now opines…

I think there is such a thing as Quality, but that as soon as you try to define it, something goes haywire. You can’t do it.


And professes that his purpose for the trip and the Chautauquas is to...

bury him [Phaedrus] – forever.


The trip is also an attempt by the narrator to re-connect with his son Chris, who clearly has memories of his father before, and his father now. At times the trip seems to be having a gentle and reassuring effect on their relationship, at other times it seems only to drive a wedge. 


And then – a stunning end. Who was mad? Phaedrus or the narrator? Who would survive? What would it mean for Chris. Recommendation: Read the final two chapters in hard-copy. my eReader did not include an all-important font change, that differentiates between the narrator’s words and those of Phaedrus. Fortunately, I have a tree-book as well, and had some forewarning of this nuance. 


Mixed emotions. I think Pirsig did a marvelous job of telling his story, and the ending is very clever. He offers intimate and honest insight on his philosophy. I enjoyed the travelogue and the narrator’s interaction with his son. But the philosophical discussions? Some were fascinating, but my biggest – not so much complaint, but – my biggest meh? It was a good deal too much navel-gazing for me.

My rating: 3 ½ of 5 Stars

This book satisfies square I-2 in 2020 Classic Bingo Challenge.

It also satisfies The Classics Club Spin #22


Excerpts (all words of the narrator):


Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic.


I suppose if I were a novelist rather than a Chautauqua orator I’d try to develop the characters of John and Sylvia and Chris with action-packed scenes that would also reveal inner meanings of Zen and maybe Art and maybe even Motorcycle Maintenance.


To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.


What Phaedrus has been talking about as Quality, Socrates appears to have described as the soul, self-moving, the source of all things.





  1. I've always wanted to read this book but now your review has left me wondering. For some reason it reminded me of Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums. Perhaps it will remain on my TBR a little longer ...

    1. I'm glad to have read it. It just wasn't "all that".

  2. back when, i thought this was the greatest book i ever read... now... not so much altho i admire P's intelligence and learning...

    1. Likewise, and I think he does a marvelous job for his purpose.

  3. I think I read it too long ago to remember clearly, but your thoughts bring the details back. Fascinating, contemplative book, and I love the quotes you've chosen.

  4. This is an interesting review. I don't know how we can determine that a book written as late as 1974 is a classic, though. What do you think about that?

    1. I know that some arbitrarily assign 50 years as the limit for a which case this is only four years short. However, I am more inclined to definitions such as "judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality..." or "a work of art or recognized and established value". Philosophy Now calls it "the best-selling philosophy book of all time." By these standards, subjective as they are, I think it should easily be considered a classic.


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