Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

by R. M. Pirsig

Hardcover, 1974

Call number

917 P



William Morrow (1974), Edition: First Edition


At its heart, the story is all too simple: a man and his son take a lengthy motorcycle trip through America. But this is not a simple trip at all, for around every corner, through mountain and desert, wind and rain, and searing heat and biting cold, their pilgrimage leads them to new vistas of self-discovery and renewal. This is an elemental work that has helped to shape and define the past twenty-five years of American culture. This special audio edition presents this adventure in a compelling way-for the millions who have already taken this journey and want to travel these roads again, and for the many more who will discover for the first time the wonders and challenges of a journey that will change the way they think and feel about their lives.… (more)

Media reviews

One is tempted to call the book a psychomelodrama, for Pirsig's intentions are as extravagant as his themes. The attempt to triumph over madness, suicide, death in the self, of his son, for our world, by means of the patient exploration of ideas and emotions is certainly an extravagant ambition.
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That he succeeds in finding a plausible catharsis through such an enterprise seems to me sufficient reward for the author's perseverance, and ample testimony to his honesty and courage.
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Whatever it's true philosophical worth, it is intellectual entertainment of the highest order.

User reviews

LibraryThing member JollyContrarian
Many years ago a chap, who I am glad to report is now my brother-in-law, was prescribed this book as a Stage 1 Engineering pre-read. He took one look at the cover and gave it to me, at that point a pubescent teenager grappling with the existential difficulties of the world which suddenly were
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presenting themselves (I'm still grappling with them now, come to think of it).

"Here," he said, "you might have more use for this than me". He probably meant it as a joke.

Well, I had a go - I would guess this was about 1983 - and I still recall Robert M Pirsig's vivid account of the bright, hot sweep of the prairies from the saddle of motorcycle, his ruminations on how to tell if your tappets need realigning, and him rabbiting on about travelling circuses called "chautauquas" and this mysterious Phaedrus character.

I can't have got the whole way through because, as the journey arcs across the midwest to San Francisco, the personal story becomes more intense and the philosophy far more technical than a hormonally confused 13 year old could reasonably have stayed with.

Recently I've found a copy and re-read it. Pirsig's fascination with the orient feels a little dated (if not glib) but it's still a clever, original and thought-provoking book, though mostly for the narrative structure rather than the philosophical content. As we read on we are presented with uncomfortable chapters in Pirsig's history. We find that Phaedrus is in fact an earlier rendition of Pirsig himself; a child genius and a tenured academic at an early age who, spurred by his own existential search for "quality", drove himself mad. He had a psychotic episode and was only brought out of it with electro-shock therapy. As we meet him, the rehabilitated Pirsig has left academia, writes technical manuals for IBM (a low-stress job if ever there were one) and has just embarked on a pan-American motorcycle tour with his son, Chris, whom he fears also may have psychiatric issues, and another couple whom he doesn't seem much to like.

It is not explained why they are riding across America, other than as a vacation (and as a vacation it sounds super: I've wanted to do the same ever since) yet, as he leaves the other couple behind, it becomes clear that Pirsig is wantonly stirring up some old ghosts as he goes, riding directly into the dark heart of Phaedrus' old life and Chris is his unwitting, and increasingly unwilling, accomplice.

Along the way Pirsig engages in these Chautauquas, expounding a theory of "quality" which, it emerges, is assembled from his fragmented recollections of Phaedrus' own homespun epistemology, once obliterated by the shock treatment but now slowly being uncovered and pieced together as he ventures westward. This is, of course, precisely the philosophy that engulfed and eventually sent Phaedrus insane, so this, with its obvious parallels to pioneering ventures into the wild west, is a powerful literary device.

This narrative structure remains fresh; Pirsig's - or perhaps Phaedrus' - philosophy feels a little more shopworn: some of the ground he covers has been fought over bitterly in the subsequent forty years, and while Pirsig's complaints about analytical and Platonic realism ring true, his attempts to cure them with an appeal to a pre-intellectual, undefinable, "quality" - a valiant attempt, I think, to avoid veering into the roadside ditch of relativism - don't really carry the day (those who have read some of my other reviews will know I don't see a big problem with the roadside ditch). Pirsig's arguments get more strident and technical, but no more compelling, as Phaedrus's personality begins to reassert itself, and as the book enters its last quarter we get into fairly intricate analysis and critique of Plato's dialogues. These have been more lightly dispatched by the likes of Popper and Feyerabend, and Pirsig's alternative (refusing as it does to define its central tenet) lacks any real utility that I could make out.

For all this the book never outstays its welcome: Pirsig is canny enough to interleave the philophical musings with the beauty of the American wilderness and an alarming descent towards the psychiatrically unknown.

In its erudition, imagination and breath of coverage Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance deserves a place, perhaps further down the rostrum, amongst Philosophy's notably "left field" classics such as Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Paul Feyerabend's Against Method, and even Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

The years have passed: my brother-in-law's eldest son is now currently reading engineering at University. I think I had better return the favour and send him a copy.
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LibraryThing member Phoenix333
The most important part of this book, for me, was that it made me consider what sanity really is. Mr. Pirsig roughly defines sanity as living within the mythos of one's own culture, not necessarily the religious norm, but the philosophical norm. This can be quite an interesting point to ponder when
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one chooses to live outside the norm. Are they really insane, or just questing onto the "road less wandered"?

Like Phaedras, the Platonic character from which the author takes his alter-ego's name, the question of Quality is also examined in depth. He traces the meaning of this word back to the Ancient Greek idea of arete, or the duty to one's self to always perform in and honorable and exemplary way. This book considers the idea that we no longer value arete or Quality as part of our philosophical norm.

As a narrative, this book is about a father reconnecting with his son after having a breakdown. However, at its core, this book is about an inner journey. It is one of those books that can be read over and over again throughout a person's life and you will always find something new of value in it- something that you are receptive to in that moment. Not only do I recommend the book, but I recommend reading it more than once.
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LibraryThing member Steve55
This is not an easy review for this is not an easy book. One thing I think I’m sure of is that it’s not about Zen or motorcycle maintenance.

On the surface the book is the story of the author and his son with some friends travelling across America. However this provides the environment for the
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author to share and explore a range of questions and issues including rationality, attitudes to technology, philosophies of life and the meaning of quality. What the book does is create the opportunity and invite the reader to explore these questions and others that they are stimulated to identify themselves. It’s a book that provokes and requires the reader to think. In a sense the book becomes and is what the reader makes of it.
What I made of it, and what makes the book exciting for me, is this approach through the vehicle of a novel of creating an environment in which the reader is teased into thinking through a range of extremely challenging philosophical questions. Many readers unwilling to engage in this process may see little in this book of value viewing it as being over complex and lacking in immediate gratification of a standard novel. Others looking not for questions but answers will be disappointed that the book has not the rigour they are looking for and provides no solutions.

However for those who want their thinking stimulated and their understanding challenged this is a demanding but very rewarding read that will probable warrant being reread several times.
I realise that the above says little about what the book is. I take comfort by quoting a passage from the book that I think releases me from having to describe what it is and invite you to find out what it becomes for you.
“The trouble is that essays always have to sound like God talking for eternity, and that isn’t the way it ever is. People should see that it’s never anything other than just one person talking from one place in time and space and circumstance. It’s never been anything else, ever, but you can’t get that across in an essay.”

All I can say is that whilst this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s the kind of book that just might change the way you see yourself, your world and your future. If you decide to read the book I recommend the 25th anniversary edition as this has some additional explanatory information by the author and also an interesting exchange of correspondence between the author and publisher which gives an insight into the creative process.

I should first credit a then colleague Dave Price who I recall was the first to mention this book to me, but it took over 20 years and the prompting of a friend I met at the Quality Congress in Harrogate, Shyam Kumar Gujadhur, for me to get around to reading it in its 25 anniversary form.
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LibraryThing member jwcooper3
Mental masturbation of the worst kind; totally self involving blather with little or no contribution to anything worthwhile save re-enforcement of the author's overblown ego. Even while not waxing tedious on encyclopedic anecdotes, the author's condescending judgmental attitude toward his travel
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mates makes me wonder why these people want to spend any time with the author in the first place.The marketing come-on gracing the front cover states, "a man in search of himself". I could buy into that if the book had any relation to a true Zen experience. This is more a monologue of scattered philosophical thought chosen to support the authors preconceived prejudices.
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LibraryThing member neurodrew
This book has been at the periphery of my consciousness for many years, since it was a famous “counter-cultural” book in the 1970’s. I decided to buy the 25th anniversary edition, and read it. I was prepared to be critical, and found that was a good way to approach the book. The book,
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according to the author is based in fact, and that implies that it is autobiographical, and in the examination of the madness of the narrator’s alter ego, Phaedrus, unbelievable. Phaedrus, the genius of philosophy and rhetoric, the only teacher of worth at a junior college, narcissitic, mean, and belittling to colleagues and family, and probably bipolar, deserved to be suppressed by electroshock therapy. It is not bad that most people need to make a living in a practical way and often just want to get by without spending too much time on the details. Everyone has a passion for something, and sometimes getting along in society means doing ordinary things. Quality, and oneness with the spirit, is an approach to life, that is inchoate, meaningless, and not as powerful a means of understanding the physical world as a dualistic subject and object dialectic. The motorcycle trip and endless “Chatauqua” on classical philosophy is ultimately elitist and excluding, since the insight occurs only to a madman, sitting incontinent in an empty apartment.
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LibraryThing member mostlyharmless
There are rare books that one comes across sometimes(rare not just because they are difficult to find, but also because you need to know what's going to hit you) where every word seems to ooze out of lifetime of experience - to the extent that the Author has seen no need to ever write another book
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- and has filtered his entire vision into a little gem.

The catch ,of course , is that you somehow need to shape your own little prism to allow all that vision to percolate through - and if you open the book expecting to judge it(What's the hype all about?)- your skull suddenly starts feeling like a zirconite figurine.

When , of course, one day you see the point of that incredible thought process, and start seeing what Phaedrus saw in his long journey -it is quite possible(like,for me) that you start somewhere at the beginning and see a completely different world for 300 pages - and feel a whoosh that makes your mind feel fluid. Alive.

Whether the effect is temporary is , of course, a purely personal choice. But ,at that stage, experiencing it is not.
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LibraryThing member lorin
This is one of my favourite books of all times. it's very difficult to describe what it is that this book is about. It's quite philosophical, and it touches on a number of different topics. There's a lot of discussion about "quality", which is quite relevant for those of us concerned with software
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development. (The main character goes insane trying to define quality, hopefully we're a little better off). I particularly like Pirsig's discussion about the process of analysis. He argues that any analytical approach will be wrong, because the world is not organized in a way that it can be decomposed into neat little boxes. On the other hand, humans can only understand the world through decomposition, so we must perform analysis, even though it will always be wrong. He argues that, because of this, we shouldn't get hung up on one particular method of decomposion. It's difficult not to draw parallels with software development here.
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LibraryThing member tanstaafl
A freind fo mine, who isnt on this site wrote this:
"The book is largely full of shit, but I was fascinated by the way Pirsig analyses people and tries to understand why they feel the way they do about things. I try to use the skills I learned in this book to understand what drives the people in my
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life. Then once I understand, I reject that insight and call them "stupid.""

I just had to share. ;-) I disagree with his review though - I wouldn't say largely full of shit - I'd be more moderate and say somewhat. I did like it though, despite its flaws.

Oh and Pirsig WAS crazy, . . . not that there is anything wrond with that. ;-)
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LibraryThing member Clara53
I had high hopes for this book. And parts of it were quite interesting and thought-provoking. But half way through it just lost me...
LibraryThing member Highlander99
Heiho! said Tiny Tim,
nursing his swollen ankle.
What more can I say
but perceive
that which cannot be seen
the naked eye.
LibraryThing member Marse
This is one of those books that became very popular in the mid-70s and seemed to be everywhere. I have a friend (we've known each other over 50 years) who told me that since high school she reads it every few years to remind herself of what is important. I started it years ago, but somehow set it
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aside and never finished it, but one day it caught my eye in a thrift store and the time was right to read it.

How do I describe it? It is philosophy, memoir, a road trip with descriptions of the beauty of nature, a disturbing history of one man's descent into madness, a search for the meaning of "quality" and a journey of rediscovery between a father and his son.

Is there a plot? well, sorta? The author states in the author's note that it is based on "actual occurrences", but it has a fictional aura to it. Reading Pirsig's Wikipedia page confirms that much of it is based on his experiences, but knowing about his son's fate years after the book was published, makes it seem particularly tragic.

I also learned from Wikipedia, that Pirsig wrote a second book, a sort of sequel to "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" which I am curious about, only because I have never heard or seen that book mentioned anywhere.

The book is actually more personal and touching than what I expected. It kept me intrigued and invested in his journey.
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LibraryThing member klmccauliff
It's official...I'm the only smart person who doesn't like this book. I was bored.
LibraryThing member Refreshingbreeze
A lot of reviews seem to say that this is not much to do with zen. That it is primarily concerned with western philosophy.
Indeed there is a likely reference to Richard Mckeon. Pirsig is comparing his prior attempts at a new development of philosophy with Mckeon's semantic schema. This schema was
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Mckeon's attempt to describe the possible states of human thought and hence conception.
Zen is a methodology whereby assumption and conception are both challenged by the inquiring mind.
Quality appears to be Pirsig's primary method of reformulating western philosophy. This quality is to be found before subsequent distinction and conception. This mirrors beliefs (see Russell and Frege) that a property is prior to mental existence. Hence the reformulation occurs prior to Mckeon's field of study. It is also thus concerned with zen in that assumption and conception comes after the raw perception.
Pirsig's story shows practical examples of zen in everyday life, including motorcycle maintenance. This is an attempt to show how actions can be more appropriate with less intellectualisation.
Overall the book is characterised by the extremes the writer's mind goes through during his two journeys. This can be quite upsetting.
Examinations of other cultures and experiences show that Pirsig is not the first to formulate such a classification. The I Ching, with its genesis in Wu Chi, Tai Chi, Yin Yang and Pakua does so elegantly. The point in the I Ching is not the associations but the distinctive generative of existence and relation. This is mirrored in other societies and religions.
The I Ching being used as the example also shows how a schema can be introduced that includes both experience and latterly conception.
I would recommend this book but only as a counter example for those interested in philosophy. Mckeon's work, though less user friendly by a long way is more capable. Alternatively if the theme of reducing conception and assumption in one's life is more important then I would recommend looking at genuine works on zen or meditation of whatever form you are comfortable with. There are far better and more appropriate works on western philosophy.
Prisig's work is emotionally written and powerful but not always clear.
Whilst his attempt was well aimed it was ultimately poorly described in the language of academia. Heidigger for example wrote beautifully on the nature of the self and their interaction with the world.
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LibraryThing member gazzy
Man goes on a roadtrip on his motorcyle describing in detail how to fix the bike and finds transcendence until he freaks out in the end over western philosophical conundrum that has zero to do with zen.
LibraryThing member hippietrail
This book has come the closest to "life changing" of anything I've read.
LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
I started reading this book in high school, and I am still finishing it. Oh, I have read all the pages, but after many rereadings, I am still processing the whole Idea of Quality, as well as the mental health issues he raises.
LibraryThing member etimme
I enjoyed the storytelling part of this book quite a bit. The father's relationship with his son was complex, and their relationship with their journey was varied and interesting. However, the author uses a heavy handed style of teaching the reader I hated enough to make me put down the book. He
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would describe a scene they experienced, then would go back through the motorcycle metaphor..again and again and again. I get it, our lives are the motorcycle and we don't understand them or strive to be more in control of them. I don't care, stop talking about it, I really don't care.
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LibraryThing member dawn.clements34
One of the most amazing books I have ever read...I have had an ongoing love-affair with this book since 1996. Originally it was given to my fiance, by his brother, for his birthday in 1994. My fiance was killed in 1996; the book became mine. I stuck it on a shelf where it sat for two years: I
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thought it was about motorcycle repair, and kept it in case I needed it for reference.
When I finally did take it off the shelf, and look it over, it was in 1997. Upon opening the book, I noticed my fiance had marked the page he had last read shortly before his death; page 121. One sleepless night, as I was looking for something to read, I again came upon this book; after the first 10 pages, I was hooked...After the first 50, I decided I wasn't putting the book down until I finished it; I read it throughout the night, and finished it in the early morning hours.
15 years later, I still have the original copy I first read, and anytime I meet someone new, who enjoys reading, I lend them the book. The last page my fiance read is still marked, and inside the back cover, are my initials, and the dates I have re-read it. I will pass it on to my sons one day!
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LibraryThing member bokai
I must have read this book at the wrong time in my life. Maybe if I was in high school in the 70s this would have all been useful, but I have already studied many of the 'discoveries' in this book, and I've used much more sensible texts to do it. Since the concepts here have been in use in Asia for
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centuries before hand, the presentation must be the thing that makes this book stand out, but I didn't find that to be impressive either. The detached, unsympathetic way he talks about his son was an odd contrast to a book that seemed to be about improving one's understanding of the universe.

370 pages is a lot of space to cover nothing but the most basic tenants of Buddhist philosophy. I have a feeling it has served as an introduction to the tao, and mu, etc... to many people, which is good. For me it seemed too elementary.
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LibraryThing member drfishy520
There's a reason this book is a classic. The writing makes you stop and think at every page, and examine aspects of your own life. Be warned though, this book is not easy reading, and you won't be able to finish it on the plane trip to Atlanta. This is a book that requires you to sit down, think,
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and re read. It's well worth it though.
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LibraryThing member tombrinck
There are some valuable reminders in this book about life lessons. He frames it all in terms of "quality", which is an odd use of the term -- he seems to be using it to refer to reality, oneness, soul -- not really a traditional framing of quality. He comes to the term "excellence" at one point,
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and has a good point about striving for excellence throughout living. Also some good points on "gumption".

The book really isn't about zen, except in a loose, indirect way. Sure, he can justify using the term, but it's not really a big theme in the book. The book takes a very academic, western philosophy approach. Despite the author advocating ego detachment, much of the book is a big ego trip -- he seems certain he's understanding something that other people aren't, and he's a bit of a pain in the ass for it.

This purports to be autobiography, and the other big theme in the book is insanity, which is a nice little side story that makes this into something of a novel, while about 2/3 of the book is a philosophical treatise. if you like reading philosophy books, you'll find it a good way to churn through western philosophical ideas you've heard before with greater skepticism. If you already know Plato, Aristotle, and, for example, Hegel, you'll get more out of the book. Heck, if you already know Taoism (and Zen), you might find yourself surprised that the author struggles so hard to come to his conclusions about the nature of reality.

As for motorcycle maintenance, he is telling us mostly about the frame of mind needed to maintain and repair motorcycles. That is, assuming you'd want to be maintaining motorcycles, or other bits of technology, which he treats as a grand virtue (or should I say "excellence"). While I think it's great if someone does geek out with their motorcycle, I can't agree with the attitude he conveys that dismisses people who don't want to geek out with it. I don't, philosophically, believe that people are obliged to learn to love the underpinnings of their technology in order to get along with it. Instead, I think his points are a good fit for the designers (and maintainers) of the technology, and designers are obliged to construct technology in such a way that it will find resonance with people, both mentally and culturally.
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LibraryThing member DeirdreMarieC
Possibly the fifth copy I've owned, because of my tendancy to greet terrific new friends with a gift of my (always underlined, though I don't to other books) copy
LibraryThing member SydneyAP
An eyeopening book. A book I return to from time to time to refresh my memory. A book that showed me there was more than one way to look at the world.
LibraryThing member KLmesoftly
This is one which, I hate to say, lost me towards the end. I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this book, but the text surrounding Persig's apparent mental breakdown and what seemed to be a second personality really threw me for a loop. Maybe I'm not "Zen" enough to understand it, as my
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professor vaguely implied, or maybe the failure can partially be laid on the author's own shoulders. Either way, tread with caution. I wouldn't tell anyone to avoid this book--I quite enjoyed it--but be prepared to be puzzled.
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LibraryThing member Black_samvara
I re-read this three times trapped in Tennant Creek with a pencil and it still annoys the crap out of me. Read it and decide for yourself ;-)
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