Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

zenandZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
by Robert Pirsig
1974 (1999) / 403 pages
read by Michael Kramer 15h 58m
rating: 9 / non-fiction classic – philosophy
(both read and listened)

Reading this book for the second time 40 years after the first time I was really nervous that it couldn’t hold up to the life-changing experience it was the first time I read it.   It didn’t quite make it to that level,   but at the same time I wasn’t disappointed because it was still a very good read,  especially toward the end.   But I’ve sometimes thought along these philosophical lines for years so …   Besides,  I’m now in my mid-60s and this is the 21st century.  At this age,  the word”quality” probably needs to better defined (if possible) and in this age “technology” is no longer a matter of motorcycle maintenance.  lol  A huge chunk of the book is really based on nostalgia for Pirsig/Phaedrus.

Everyone’s just about out of gumption. And I think it’s about time to return to the rebuilding of this American resource— individual worth. There are political reactionaries who’ve been saying something close to this for years. I’m not one of them , but to the extent they’re talking about real individual worth and not just an excuse for giving more money to the rich, they’re right . We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption. We really do. I hope that in this Chautauqua some directions have been pointed to. (Page 350)

But I remember the era when I told a professor that the ideal life included being able to fix the things of your life – (before I’d read ZAMM).  These days I can’t even imagine being able to do that – a cell phone?  Or even the gloves mentioned in ZAMM.

Furthermore,  my late hubby read the book around the same time and he wasn’t all that impressed but didn’t go into it.  He was very close to atheist though,  and a research meteorologist later. He also took the old VW bus totally apart, rebuilt the engine,  and put it back together on the garage floor.

The book follows the narrator (aka Phaedrus) and his 15-year old son, Chris, as they tour the backroads between Minneapolis and San Francisco with a couple of friends on their own bike.   The narrator, in the guise of Phaedrus,  is explaining to the reader, or to himself,  the ideas which got him in trouble as a student and a teacher.  It also apparently drove his madness – either that or his madness drove him via taking the ideas into extremes  –  something.  The narrator,  in the guise of non-Phaedrus, tends toward egotism and without much sense of humor.  Chris is also mentally disturbed in some way.

There is a nice tension in the book as it goes from traveling back to Montana with his friends and where the narrator taught for awhile to the trip alone with Chris and his own memories and “haunting” by Phaedrus.

The plot threads of the narrative include the road-trip and its difficulties,  the narrator’s past, and the ideas themselves.  It could be a memoir as much as philosophy – it’s definitely based on the life of Robert Pirsig.


4 Responses to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

  1. jameswharris says:

    I too revisited this book again by listening to the audio edition a few years ago. When it first came out it was a new age Bible of sorts, but the second time around, I got into it more into how Pirsig told his story. It’s especially tragic when you read about Chris’ death. I haven’t read it yet, but your review makes me wonder about the new book The Road to Character by David Brooks.


  2. I’m glad I re-read it. And I too am curious about The Road to Character. It’s on the Non-fiction Suggestion List.


  3. Jeff O'Brien says:

    Glad to hear that Zen stands the test of time although it wasn’t 40 years ago that I read it as I couldn’t read at all that long ago.


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