Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

by Robert M. Pirsig
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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself.’”

One of the most important and influential books of the past half-century, Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a powerful, moving, and penetrating examination of how we live and a meditation on how to live better. Pirsig’s narrative of a father and son on a summer motorcycle trip across America’s Northwest becomes a profound personal and philosophical odyssey into life’s fundamental questions. A true modern classic, it remains at once touching and transcendent, resonant with the myriad confusions of existence and the small, essential triumphs that propel us forward.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061673733
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/30/2008
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 784,586
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.76(h) x 1.21(d)

About the Author

Robert M. Pirsig (1928-2017) studied chemistry and philosophy (B.A., 1950) and journalism (M.A., 1958) at the University of Minnesota and also attended Benares Hindu University in India, where he studied Oriental philosophy. He is also the author of this book's sequel, entitled Lila.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I can see by my watch without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning. The wind, even at sixty miles an hour, is warm and humid. When it's this hot and muggy at eight-thirty, I'm wondering what it's going to be like in the afternoon.

In the wind are pungent odors from the marshes by the road. We are in an area of the Central Plains filled with thousands of duck hunting sloughs, heading northwest from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas. This highway is an old concrete two-laner that hasn't had much traffic since a four-laner went in parallel to it several years ago. When we pass a marsh the air suddenly becomes cooler. Then, when we are past, it suddenly warms up again.

I'm happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that. Tensions disappear along old roads like this. We bump along the beat-up concrete between the cattails and stretches of meadow and then more cattails and marsh grass. Here and there is a stretch of open water and if you look closely you can see wild ducks at the edge of the cattails. And turtles. . . . There's a red-winged blackbird.

I whack Chris's knee and point to it, "What!" he hollers.


He says something I don't hear. "What?" I holler back. He grabs the back of my helmet and hollers up, "I've seen lots of those, Dad!"

"Oh!" I holler back. Then I nod. At age eleven you don't get very impressed with red-winged blackbirds.

You have to get older for that. For me this is all mixed with memories that he doesn't have. Cold mornings long ago when the marsh grass had turned brown andcattails were waving in the northwest wind. The pungent smell then was from muck stirred up by hip boots while we were getting in position for the sun to come up and the duck season to open. Or winters when the sloughs were frozen over and dead and I could walk across the ice and snow between the dead cat-tails and see nothing but grey skies and dead things and cold. The blackbirds were gone then. But now in July they're back and everything is at its alivest and every foot of these sloughs is humming and cricking and buzzing and chirping, a whole community of millions of living things living out their lives in a kind of benign continuum.

You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it's right there, so blurred you can't focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

Chris and I are traveling to Montana with some friends riding up ahead, and maybe headed farther than that. Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere. We are just vacationing. Secondary roads are preferred. Paved county roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are the worst. We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on "good" rather than "time" and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes. Twisting hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don't get swung from side to side in any compartment. Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable, as well as safer. Roads free of drive-ins and billboards are better, roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is, where when you stop to ask directions or information the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you're from and how long you've been riding.It was some years ago that my wife and I and our friends first began to catch on to these roads. We took them once in a while for variety or for a shortcut to another main highway, and each time the scenery was grand and we left the road with a feeling of relaxation and enjoyment. We did this time after time before realizing what should have been obvious: these roads are truly different from the main ones. The whole pace of life and personality of the people who live along them are different. They're not going anywhere.

Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary
A narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son, the book becomes a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions of how to live. The narrator's relationship with his son leads to a powerful self-reckoning; the craft of motorcycle maintenance leads to an austerely beautiful process for reconciling science, religion, and humanism.

Topics for Discussion

  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is at once the story of a motorcycle journey across the country; a meditation on values and the concept of Quality; and an allegorical tale of a man coming to terms with his past. Discuss which aspects of the novel you found most compelling, and why.

  • Discuss Pirsig's Author's Note. What does he mean when he says "much has been changed for rhetorical purposes?" Is he saying the book is fact or fiction? How does his use of a first-person narrator make this a complex question? What is the relationship between author and narrator?

  • Discuss ZMM's epigraph: And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good -- Need we ask anyone to tell us these things? How does this query resemble a Buddhist koan -- a paradoxical or nonsensical question that emphasizes the process of meditating on the question rather than the answer? Why do you think Pirsig chose this excerpt to introduce the book?

  • At the beginning of their trip, the narrator and John have a conversation in which the narrator refers to education as "mass hypnosis," citing as an example the fact that Newton's law of gravity is nothing more than a human invention, as are laws of logic, mathematics, and ghosts. Why doesthis dialogue take place at the outset of the novel, as opposed to somewhere in the middle or the end of the trip? How is Pirsig preparing the reader for the novel's future scenes?

  • In setting out the topic for his Chautauqua, Pirsig compares the current consciousness to a stream overflowing its channels, causing destruction and havoc as it searches for new ones: "There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and 'best' was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose. . . . Some channel deepening seems called for." (p. 16). Can you explain this metaphor? What sorts of change is he referring to? What does he mean by "channel deepening?"

  • As a writer of technical manuals, the narrator decries the current situation in which the idea of who a man is has become separated from what he does. He claims that in this separation are clues to "what the hell has gone wrong with the twentieth century." How does this concept fit in to what you know of Zen Buddhism, which celebrates the oneness of the universe? Do you feel at one with your occupation? Explain why or why not. If not, what is keeping you from feeling connected to what you do for a living? Would you feel more satisfied, or be a better worker, if you did feel that connection?

  • The narrator divides human understanding into two categories: romantic and classical. Discuss the distinction between the two. How do you fit into either of these dichotomies? Give examples that illustrate the tendencies that make you, personally, either classical or romantic.

  • How does Pirsig introduce and develop the character of Phaedrus? Can you rely on the narrator to offer an accurate picture of Phaedrus's insanity? Do you think Phaedrus really was insane?

  • What do you think of the narrator's son, Chris? Does he seem troubled, or merely a typical boy impatient with his father's behavior? Who do you think is a better father to Chris -- Phaedrus or the narrator?

  • Why do you think the narrator refuses to complete the trek up the mountain, despite Chris's disappointment that they won't be reaching the top? Is the threat of a rock slide real? Is he afraid to "meet" Phaedrus? Is he making a statement about ego relative to Zen philosophy? What is happening in the Chautauqua at this point in the book?

  • Discuss the climactic scene -- a confrontation between Chris and the narrator that takes place on a foggy cliff overlooking the ocean. Where is Phaedrus? What does this scene reveal about all three characters? How does this scene change your interpretations of the events that have lead up to it? What is the significance of Chris and his father removing their helmets for the remainder of the journey?

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    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 73 reviews.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    The first of Robert Maynard Pirsig's two books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is neither primarily focused on zen nor motorcycle maintenance but is a nonfiction account of the author's search for truth. More symbolic of the manifestation of Pirsig's philosophies, the concepts of zen and motorcycles are used to demonstrate the author's theories so that the reader can better visualize his ideas. Serving as the book's main organizational device, the motorcycle trip lasts for seventeen days beginning in Minnesota and ending in California. This quest motif seems to be representative of the author's larger search for truth, for identity, and for quality. Interspersed throughout the story of the author's journey through the mountains are what he likes to call Chautauquas: philosophical thoughts pertaining to life, human nature, humanity's relationship with technology, and the ever-elusive concept of quality, which is the book's main focus. The philosophical aspects make the book worth your time and somehow more sophisticated. The narrative aspects provides interest and gives you a break from all the deep concepts presented. The autobiographical aspects cause a relationship between the author and yourself to form. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance can be a perplexing book and a struggle to get through. In the beginning of the book, before you've adjusted to this unusual style of the author, you can't help but wonder as what this book's purpose is, be confused at this structure which you had never seen before, and even question the sanity of the author. Then, as a reader you become accustomed to Pirsig's writing style. You begin to look at things differently, where you don't look so much as to what the words are but what they mean. And after becoming accustomed to his unusual style, you learn to appreciate it. His use of narrative structure makes it seem as if the author is just now experiencing all of these thoughts and discovering all of these truths. Pirsig portrays himself to be in the act of philosophizing, in the act of his experiential struggles, not simply telling the reader afterward when the action is finished and the thought has ceased. As a reader, you feel as if you are experiencing these revelations in concurrence with him. Pirsig invites you to step into the next level of thinking but still allows you to formulate your own personal viewpoints and opinions. He doesn't write above the level of the average person, yet manages to not oversimplify things as if he's addressing ignorance. Before reading this book, I perceived the concepts which he discusses to be way above my level, perhaps because they simply are too complex for me or perhaps because I lack the patience to really sit down and examine them. Somehow, Pirsig made these topics more understandable. However, this is not to be confused with effortless. He does not make the topics easy and simple, but he makes them more accessible to an ordinary person like myself. He allows you to have the opportunity to look at and dissect these things, to relate them to your own thoughts and life, to have its own profound impact on you. There is still much confusion, times of frustration, endless hours of thinking about these concepts that just go around and around in your mind. There is still all of this, but there is no confusion as to what these topics are, just the marvelous confusion of what these topics mean. Personally, my perception of the theme was that changing your concept of the world and of life can change the world and life itself. Looking at things from a different point of view, a point of view not tainted by sociey's perception of right and wrong and normal, a point of view not tarnished by structure and routine, a point of view completely new and fresh, can do wonders. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the type of book that stays with you long after you've finished reading it.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    8322515 More than 1 year ago
    If you can get through the first 150-200 pages, this book will grip you. Part narrative drama, part critique of modern society, Pirsig's alleged "inquiry into values" is both brilliant and flawlessly written.
    KaneH More than 1 year ago
    Re-read this book after about 40 years or so, and was once again moved by the power and intensity of the story. Knowing now the fate of one of the characters was heartbreaking, and a reminder to live and love for the day. This is several journeys in one book - a modern-day vacation of father and son, an inquiry into the breakdown of a former self, and an exploration of philosophy and the meaning of things. Quite a lot to pack into one book, and the author pulls it off, with painful self-revelation. It's well worth taking the journey here, as one might discover many things.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Thought provoking
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    CEmden More than 1 year ago
    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig, an ingenious inquiry into the values of today's society asks innovative philosophical questions that make this novel a modern day classic. Pirsig's enthusiasm for digging deeper into the every-day train of thought constantly results in the reader uncovering new perspectives on subjects such as the definition of quality, the divide between man and technology, the idea of universal truth, and most importantly the repression infflicted by society on original or avant-garde thought. The author artfully supplies the reader with a considerable amount of profound ideas by skillfully weaving his lectures, or "chautaquas" into the story of the narrator's motorcycle journey with his son across the country. This technique provides the much needed relief that a reader thirsts for after having to avidly follow each of the numerous and intricate steps Pirsig takes in every inquiry. It is the reader's job to pay great attention to each and every detail, because it is the only manner to fully comprehend the author's final results and conclusions. Another brilliant technique the author uses to engage his audience is the use of motorcycles, particularly their maintenance, as a solid analogy to guide his abstract ideas. Persig is able to create correlations between his cycle and explanations such as the assembly of an argument to the assembly of a motorcycle. Ultimately, Persig is able to make this machine a perfect tool for reflecting the attitudes and relationships with humans and themselves, and humans with technology. Admittedly, Pirsig's novel appeals to a peculiar audience, which is that of people with a passion for knowledge and a willingness to look at things under a perhaps unconventional light. Unless the reader has an unadulterated eagerness to learn and an open mind, the novel may at times feel dull, and the reader may be tempted just to skip over the difficult and stressing philosophical questions, and continue on with the story of the main character and his son, which paired with Pirsig's inquiries, enriches the text, but alone stands without much meaning. Personally, I found that this book had aspects that called out to me more than others, and those that did truly fascinated me! My ability to engage myself in the book took copious patience, but once I finally discovered the patterns and rhythms of Pirsig's story line, I was able to grasp his fundamental messages and investigate their relevance to my own existence. I believe my fascination stemmed primarily from the novelty of Persig's statements. I realized that the extent of my philosophical understanding was extremely superficial, and was shocked at my inability to ask questions as simple as, "What is quality?" or see the clear-as-day effects of societal norms, and how they have contorted basic principals, primarily those of education. Socially, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has commenced a revolution. In a time where technology seems like such an opposing force, Persig is able to point to society's flaws, and paint a picture of an ideallistic world encompassing the seemingly irreconcilable romantic and classic schools of thought with a simple machine: the motorcycle.
    alexisnw More than 1 year ago
    Prisig's novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a philosophically intriguing discourse a true ideologist would surely enjoy. That said, its title simply falls short in doing the discourse justice. its name is quite deceiving with is uninformative nature of actual motorcycles and the absence of Zen in the narrator's mind. Prisig's subtitle, "An Inquiry into Values" serves as a more accurate explanation of his novel. Similar to romantic works, Prisig truly engages the reader to immerse oneself into the roots of acquiring knowledge, question the basics in a scientific mannerism, and to truly inquire the postulates we would otherwise ignore. Though the novel describes the protagonist's journey through several states, it is the labyrinth of the narrator's mind that is truly traveled. In the beginning, Prisig's perplex thought process was difficult to both comprehend and appreciate. It strikes the readers as a disorderly discourse in need of literary filtration or clarification. As I continued reading, it became evident that what seemed to be Prisig's haphazard words was actually an organized disarray of thoughts that enters the mind. He creates the perfect equilibrium between romanticism and modern society by dichotomizing his prized motorcycle as if it was the nature that surrounds him. Prisig's utilization of several characters mirrors a distinct difference of individuals in society today. Some elucidate the commonalities of an ignorant mind, unwilling to look beyond an outward appearance and always seeking an explanation that they themselves are disinclined to find. On the other hand, some are too young to truly appreciate ideology and are continuing to learn how to inquire and advance their knowledge. A common theme Prisig highlights upon is how the mind reflects a machine. Those unwilling to fully understand the intricacies will fail to find the beauty that lies within. Though such process of clarity seems beneficial, the narrator walks a fine line between composure and pure insanity. His inability to control the thoughts that pervade his head of the unknown becomes evident in the verbose digression of the Chautauqua. It is Prisig's excellent use of syntax and structure that can be credited in explaining the darkness of the protagonist's true obsession. Though the narrator's extensive thought process arising from his inability to control himself causes moments of great confusion, it almost seems as though this uncertainty is purposeful. It is as though Prisig is saying that not everything life throws at you will be known, and that life is full of uncertainties. It's a realization that to live does not necessarily require a finite explanation. One thing that remains coherent amongst his cluttered mind is how the process of learning is much more valuable than finding the solution itself. As a student entering my final years of high school, Prisig has redefined my thought process all together and is a novel one should certainly read. The narrator's trip may have lasted just seventeen days but provided an outlook for readers that will last a lifetime. I truly appreciated Prisig's refreshing and optimistic outlook in life, in hopes of leaving readers with a brighter image in the rear view mirror for the future.
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