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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060589462
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/25/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 560
Sales rank: 1,265
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Robert M. Pirsig was born in 1928 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He 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 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 126 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.
    clydec on LibraryThing 7 months ago
    Excellent book although only tangentially about motorcycles
    drpeff on LibraryThing 7 months ago
    difficult in the 1st 100 pages. Lots of motorcycle talk & the phaedrus part is confusing, but by the end of the book, I felt that the author took me on a philosophical journey that was worth the effort. It made me contemplate why our society believes so much in science & evidence & how art is separate. In the end he defines quality as ¿doing one¿s best¿ & he proposes that it can be measured.
    rayski on LibraryThing 7 months ago
    A motorcycle ride from Minnesota to California to learn what is Quality, subjectively and objectively; thoughts on romantic and classical thinking. A bit much, too much philosophy; too much Socrates and Plato too.
    pjweums on LibraryThing 7 months ago
    I first read this book after reading about it in the NYT Review of Books in 1974. It was the first book that I remember reading with a dictionary beneath it (but not the last) and it is one of the books that changed the direction of my life, recognizing that my life IS a quest for meaning. I have read it several times since (including in audio) and each time I get a little more out of it. Definitely one of my 'Top 10 Favorites' books. I highly recommend it.
    neurodrew on LibraryThing 7 months ago
    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, 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.
    Cygnus555 on LibraryThing 7 months ago
    I just can't bring myself to slop through this book. I have tried twice now and both times I have come to the conclusion - "Do I want to die reading this book?" Hell no. I don't like his writing style, the topic is uninteresting and I've yet to see anything about Zen in there of any note. Mind you, this may be because I've stopped reading it twice.Too many good books out there to make me want to read this one!! I'm really glad some people like it.
    MrStevens on LibraryThing 7 months ago
    Terrific story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It made me consider philosophy as a second major or a master's degree.
    drfishy520 on LibraryThing 7 months ago
    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, and re read. It's well worth it though.
    Highlander99 on LibraryThing 7 months ago
    Heiho! said Tiny Tim, nursing his swollen ankle.What more can I saybut perceive that which cannot be seen with the naked eye.
    jwcooper3 on LibraryThing 7 months ago
    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 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.
    Phoenix333 on LibraryThing 7 months ago
    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 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.
    BraveKelso on LibraryThing 7 months ago
    A compelling story of obsession and insanity. When I first read it, I thought the effort to explain "quality" was interesting. Now I think it's trite. The fascination with quality marks this as an effort to marry selfish consumption to selfish spirituality - a poser's book. Pirsig was a discerning or lucky student of what the market wanted. The book is about justifying attachments. The connection to Zen or Buddhism seems ironic.
    houlihan on LibraryThing 7 months ago
    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an interesting look at the things learned by going mad, in that profound insight often comes from outside of our cultural norms, and that is the journey of our narrator - from deep within to deeply without of the bounds of our societal norms.There's as much in here to ridicule as to take to heart, however. I feel that there is far too much emphasis on "feelings" and "emotions" in the thrust of the decision making pushing the philosophy forward, and I fear that much of the lessons of this book have been missed by most of the population because of this. The thrust of the discussion is on "Quality", a term Pirsig holds as undefinable yet readily apparent. This "Quality" seems at times to be a sense of fitness to purpose, while at other times it seems to be about aesthetics as much as function. It is not, as he takes pains to explain, in aesthetics alone as things built to look nice but serve no purpose bug the hell out of him. He uses the example of a plaster fireplace in the wall of a dwelling as the epitome of non-quality - somethings designed to give the impression of advanced functionality in a purely illusionary sense.The book is a valuable read, but I would suggest that people read further into philosophy once done. Further conceptualization within the "great conversation" helps to evaluate Pirsig's philosophy outside of the last cresting of the baby boomer's striving for a different world before they sold "quality" up the river for material "fulfillment" instead.
    bokai on LibraryThing 7 months ago
    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 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.
    Steve55 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    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 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.
    Linus_Linus on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    This experience is like scuppering your boat after shooting yourself in the foot and putting it into your mouth, all the while contemplating why is that your foot that rests in your mouth hurts while you are drowning?

    The moral is simple: One should just take his medication and shut up. If he is still adamant to do something, he should go and do fishing or write a book about how to improve the efficacy of the internal combustion engine, if thats too boring go find the holy grail or something.
    lordraven on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    This one is now in my top 10 most important books ever.I suppose for one who is a classical thinker this book may seem trite. However, I relate very much to the attitudes towards technology that Pirsig describes as romantic. And contrary to what some reviewers said I did not find his tone condescending or elitist. If I had I probably wouldn't have finished it. Instead I was sucked in and found my perspective slowly being altered. And if I can remember to keep some of these concepts in mind then maybe my machines won't betray me. And then perhaps my life will have been changed by this book.
    drwhy on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    This book by Pirsig is a great choice for introducing students to philosophy.It is an autobiographical novel about Pirsig's own forays in the field of philosophy, and his battle with mental illness.First published in 1974, it immediately gained a avid following, and became for many of its admirers, a life changing book.to my knowledge, it has been through more than a hundred printings....Pirsig is a very private person, and gives very few interviews.
    GrievousAngel on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    The story is about a judgmental arrogant man who is aghast at those who don¿t think and value what he does. How dare anyone see the world at any angle other than the one he see it at? Had I been on this road trip I would have gone my own way within one day seeing how he treats his son who is punished for being sick.
    lindseyrivers on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    Admittedly over my head. A dense read. The parts I got were insightful, and the fact that it was non-fiction was very interesting.
    GShuk on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    This classic combines fiction and philosophy. Even though it is dated it is still relevant. The story line a little drawn out but kept me guessing right to the end. That said I would only recommend this book to those who may have an interest in philosophy. For me it makes me want to learn more about philosophy.
    etimme on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    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 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.
    willyt on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    One of my favorite books that I have read and reread. I enjoy the simple backstory, but more importantly, always find something new to (re)consider. As a practicing natural scientist and teacher, I also (re)discover ideas to convey to my students.
    amandajoy30 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    I find this book enlightening and confusing all at the same time. There are some parts I get, and it¿s like an ¿a-ha¿ type of moment. Other times I have absolutely no idea what he¿s talking about. I think this is the type of book you need to re-read, more than once, and hopefully have someone you can discuss it with.