Book Review: Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance by Robert M. PirsigZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Value

Robert M. Pirsig

[William Morrow Paperbacks, 464 pages]

Robert M. Pirsig wrote Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values over the course of four years while working full-time as a manual content writer. The novel’s original manuscript was rejected over a hundred times before William Morrow and Company officially published it in 1974. When I first picked up the novel I thought it was a pragmatic story about a father and son’s motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California. After reading the first few pages I quickly realized the author was embarking on a spiritual excursion filled with philosophical twists, packed with psychological demons and powered by the eternal love between a man and his son.

The narrator approaches the story slowly, as the tale is a mix of memoir, biography and complicated philosophy. The plot is broken up into three subplots, which each require attention to understand the overall concept that the author aims to achieve. The first subplot is the main story line—considering the 17-day motorcycle trip pushes the novel forward by giving it a systematic frame found in most novels. The second story is a philosophical musing about romantic emotivism and classical rationality. The third is a tale about a man trying to reclaim his identity after overcoming serious past struggles.

The narrator and Chris are accompanied for the first nine days of the long journey to California by long time family friends John and Sylvia. John is a romantic character because, although he loves motorcycle riding, he knows nothing about the machine’s maintenance. John stands in stark contrast to the narrator—a rational, classical thinker—who places utmost importance on fixing his motorcycle with his own two hands. Learning the differences between romantic and classical thought is important to understanding the book because it lays the foundation for the novel’s most pivotal topic, which is the narrator’s struggle with his logical and creative mind. He’s unable to combine contradicting aspects of his character because of his constant quest for knowledge.

The narrator is obsessed with combing intuitive subjectivity with classical knowledge. It’s the classic battle of art versus science as he pursues the ultimate dream of empirically describing quality. The narrator delves into eastern religions and uses the Tao to describe Quality. Is the quality of a product subjective, objective or both? The narrator refers to himself as “Phaedrus” when referring to the past. Phaedrus struggles with traditional Western Christianity, and the book uses the Holy Trinity as a way to establish connections between subjectivity, objectivity and the in-between space of both disciplines. Instead of combining art and science, Phaedrus tried to take a third path, which did not lead him in the direction he mentally and spiritually wanted to go.

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values is a gem that challenges preconceived notions about classical and romantic epistemologies, explores the relationship between man and child, and tests the boundaries between past and present history. It does a great job presenting viewpoints that examine the nature of quality. If you are searching for an answer to a small mundane question, or an answer to a life-changing inquiry, this book is worth a read or two.

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by Mary Ann Boateng