837 of 873 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 2006
I'm compelled to write this review after browsing the others, because something has to be said about book that isn't being pointed out for someone who is interested in the book for the first time.
At this point, this book can be found on the front table in your local bookstore. Other philosophy books can be found in the philosophy section either collecting dust, or being perused by someone intensely interested in philosophy who is well versed in debates that have gone on for centuries.
I have listened to the author, Robert Pirsig, being interviewed, and it seems that he did, in fact, intend for this book and its premise of "Quality" to be the great, all encompassing philosophy, presented in a straightforward, readable manner. However, despite Pirsig's intention, that is not quite why this book has become so famous.
This book is famous because it fills a perfect niche in that it introduces some very complicated philosophical questions in a form that the common reader will find interesting. Pirsig is attempting to create a practical philosophy and sets the book against the background of actual experience to make the questions he ponders real for the reader.
With that in mind, if you are not clamoring for a debate with someone else who is knowledgable on the ins and outs of Kierkegaard and Spinoza and are simply looking for a readable book that makes a real attempt of answering the big questions in life, this book is for you.
What I find interesting, and somewhat disturbing, is that many choose to deride this book because it doesn't agree with their notions of philosopy, but fail to grasp that the people who are most likely to read this book won't even be at the table to understand their objections to it unless they read it.
Probably no book has ever been more successful in interesting people in philosophy in the first place. So why are people who are interested in the subject eager to send them away because it disagrees with something they read in some banal tome?
Bottom line, if you ran across this book at your local bookshop or had it recommended to you by a friend, you must read it. It is an awesomely thought inspiring book and asks questions you never thought to ask or at least didn't know how to put your finger on. It's both a good novel and a great introduction to philosophy for people who have an interest in greater questions but not all the time to pursue them. I don't think you should worry about the fact that someone with a Masters Degree in Philosophy, or an equivalent knowledge, is bothered by the book. Also, I wouldn't be thrown by the title. The book isn't trying to sell you a newsletter or convert you to any church (despite the use of the phrase "The Church of Reason") and is only using a bit of Zen philosophy as a grounding for its premise.
Pirsig's premise does have a tendency to never be overtly stated, but I believe that he does this because he doesn't want it overly simplified in the way I'm about to do it.
Pirsig's premise is that we live in a world of both the "Classical" and "Romantic" or, as I'll simplify it, "function" and "form", respectively. Pirsig sees the problems in our world as the result of an overemphasis on form, when function is more essential. However, pure "function" has problems of its own. For example, our bodily organs carry out the function of allowing us to live, but one doesn't really desire for our skin to be translucent so we can watch these functions. In fact, we would have a revulsion to such a thing. Therefore, we have a combination of both of "form" and "function"; our organs work very well without our having to see them. This is the desirable state. This desirable state is called "Quality". Good "function" seems to bring about its own desirable "form". May the decorative towel be damned. That's grossly oversimplified, but there it is.
Finally, one shouldn't be thrown off Pirsig's premise by the fact that, quite frankly, he tends to be an impatient father and not very easy to get along with. While reading the book, it becomes apparent that Pirsig is sharing this with us because he is oblivious to it himself. He makes it obvious that he doesn't understand why no one is pondering the philosophical implications of repairing a motorcycle or why his young son isn't arriving at all of the conclusions he is, despite the fact his son is eleven. He seems to be trapped in the context of his own view of the world.
So, if you want to wade your way through all of the pontificating, please take the time to read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". If you really, really like it, you'll have to read Pirsig's other book "Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals". Though "Lila" takes a narrative approach that's a bit less readable than "Zen and...", it gives a more comprehensive view of Pirsig's philosophy. Read both. Then you can debate with the philosophy majors.
162 of 165 people found the following review helpful
I might be a little late on this train, because I heard about this book almost 40 years after it came out. I was interested in it based on the title. I don’t particularly associate Zen and motorcycle maintenance, but Robert Pirsig certainly made it work. This tale is a classic one, and it will undoubtedly live on long after I’m gone. I’m glad I got to read even though it came 40 years later. I think the teachings are poignant and profound, and the framework of the entire narrative—a father-son motorcycle trip—is absolutely perfect. If you ever want to know what questions to ask about your own existence, then I feel like this is a must-read.
In my search for a better understanding of myself, I also came across 21 Things You Should Give Up To Be Happy This book doesn’t offer the same Zen-like, calming musings that you’ll find in Pirsig’s book. But, authors Alvin Huang and Chris D’Cruz certainly possess some kind of understanding of how the human mind works. If you want to be happy, you simply have to let some things go. There’s no getting around it. Being a perfectionist is something that will never lead to happiness. I was a perfectionist. I wanted everyone to like me, and I wanted everything I did to be absolutely perfect. In some ways, that’s a benefit I think you have to let go of the fact that everything you do could be perfect. It’s just no feasible.
I think if you’re looking for a relaxing read, then Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the perfect book for you. It certainly a book that will force you to think critically, laugh, and make profound discoveries about yourself and the nature of human life. Add 21 Things You Should Give Up To Be Happy to give yourself a well-rounded library as well.
412 of 466 people found the following review helpful
on May 2, 2000
In my (1/e)*100 years on this planet, during which I devoured at least ten times as many books, I have read only two more than once - "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" is one of them. In this monumental 1974 work, Robert Pirsig has achieved what few others have managed before him and, to the best of my knowledge, nobody else has accomplished since: a perfect unification of philosophy, adventure and mystery. His "Chautauqua," or traveling tale, takes the reader on a profound tour of ancient Greek philosophy, the steppes of Montana, and even a little bit of Zen Buddhism, with endless surprises and much original if not truly inspired thought along the way. Through his self-portrayal by means of the unforgettable and eerily enigmatic character Phaedrus, Mr. Pirsig shares his far-reaching search for the meaning of life, and himself. His fundamental concern is with the following seemingly simple but in effect infinitely complex question: "How can one distinguish "good" from "bad?" The question is posed and addressed in many different forms throughout the book, and in the process the concepts of truth, value and quality are dissected, reassembled, and again dissected and reassembled many times. Mr. Pirsig has an uncanny sense of timing, and he never allows the heavier passages to labor on too long. This is avoided by craftily interspersing his philosophical discourse amongst very down-to-earth and charming observations made during a motorcycle trip that takes the narrator and his seemingly troubled son Chris from the American Prairies to the Pacific, and forms the prevalent background for the entire "Chautauqua." "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" is a totally unique creation. Not being one to lend himself easily to corny clichés, I nevertheless believe that this is one book that definitely could dramatically change your life, whether or not you believe in Zen or have ever sat on a motorcycle. If you love somebody, buy them this book
50 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2001
I first read this book in 1975. I particularly appreciated then the concrete illustrations used in the development of Pirsig's philosophy. However, I was not prepared at that time to follow the details of the logic used to develop his main point, namely, that in ancient Greece rationality had unfairly toppled mysticism as a valid source of knowledge.
I always intended to read the book again and finally last month I found an open week, bought a copy of the new 25th anniversary edition, and went at it. The text is unchanged in content but the print is larger and much easier to read than in my old paperback edition. The margins are wider and allow more annotations. It is well worth getting this Anniversary edition.
This time I got much deeper into Pirsig's main premise--the one noted above. Pirsig believes Quality to be the missing element in today's culture, but he says it must be kept undefined so that rationality will not be able to kill it again as it did thousands of years ago.
My major satisfaction from this novel still comes from the unusually perceptive and cleverly-wrought metaphors that Pirsig presents to advance his philosophical arguments. I have so many favorite ones it is difficult to choose among them. For instance, he labels the University as "Church of Reason," indicating it fanatical devotion to rationality at the expense of other values not approachable through rational means. No wonder professors of philosophy feel threatened. Rationality is their bread and butter!
Other illustrations: He compares the experience of looking out of a framed car window with the frameless view you get riding a motorcycle and uses this as an example of breaking down the subject/object boundary. He indicates that his objective is not to deal with "the 'news,' the silt of tomorrow" which accumulates when the river of culture bends, but to try to deepen the channels of "the best" that lies ahead along the river's future course. He likes to follow "an arrow that enlarges sideways in flight" rather then tracking its forward path in order to find "lateral truths" that point to falseness of axioms which prevent hitting the target. He points out that "institutions such as schools, churches, government, and political organizations of every sort all tend to direct thought for ends other than truth, namely, for the perpetuation of their own functions." I have often pondered this telling truth.
Ultimately, he finds Quality to be the uppermost element of the triad of truth--the creator of both subject and object, residing in the interface between the two. His comparison of Quality with the ancient text of the Tao is exhilarating!
The Quality of this novel is extraordinary for me. It exhibits many of the aspects of Quality in writing such as integrity, imagination, flux, continuity, suspense, insight, pathos, and allegory as it attempts to find the missing element in today's technology-dominated world. It is one of the five formative books in my life, and has a place on my "favorites" bookshelf next to Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and the poems and essays of D.H. Lawrence.
42 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on July 11, 2000
I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a college senior twenty-five years ago. I remember then being frightened by how this man's determination to pursue a philosophical idea to its conclusion, even if it were against the grain of established conventions of thinking, drove him insane. I was afraid deeper study and questioning might do the same to me. I know now, however, that I'm not insane. I also know that twenty-five years ago this story of a man and his son travelling by motorcycle from Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean took deep residence in my soul.
I've been a teacher now for twenty-three years, long enough to forget some of my initial influences. But, as I read this book all these years later, I realized that my philosophical view points, examples I use to illustrate ideas with my students, what I believe the purpose of an education is, and several other bits of pedagogy and ideology originated in Pirig's story.
I highly recommend this book, maybe especially if you are unread in philosophy and would like a readable, enjoyable, and provocative entree into the history and vocabulary of philosophy.
It's a deeply moving, intellectually stiumlating story. Its devotion to story-telling and philosophical inpuiry is indeed most rare.
76 of 92 people found the following review helpful
Before reviewing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, let me mention that most people will either love or hate the book. Few will be indifferent.
Those who will love the book will include those who enjoy philosophy, especially those who are well read in that subject; people who ride and maintain their own motorcycles; readers who are interested in psychology, particularly in terms of the mass hypnosis of social concepts; individuals who are curious about the line we draw between sanity and insanity; and people who want to think about how to deal with troubling personal situations, especially as a parent. As someone who has all of these interests and perspectives, the book fit my needs very well.
Those who will dislike the book are people who like lots of action in their novels, dislike the subjects described above, and who want easy reading. This book is very thick with concepts, ideas, metaphors, and layering which reward careful reading and thought. Most text books are considerably easier to read and understand. Few modern novels are any more difficult to read from an intellectual and emotional perspective.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has several story lines that intertwine to create a synthesis of thought and experience:
- a father and young son take a motorcycle trip from the Midwest to California
- the father has an internal dialogue with himself about what he observes about the people around him and their engagement with life and technology
- the father attempts to reconstruct the ideas and perspective he had before being treated as a mental patient (which treatment destroyed and distorted his memory and personality)
- the father looks at the great philosophers of western and eastern civilization and attempts to integrate their thoughts into an aesthetic built around our ability to know quality when we see and experience it
- the father deals with the incipient signs of mental instability in his son and himself.
The book is almost impossible to characterize, but let me try anyway. Perhaps the closest book to this one is Hermann Hesse's Siddharta. At the same time, there is also a strong flavor of Zen and the Art of Archery. On the Road by Jack Kerouac covers some of the same intellectual and emotional territory. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men considers some of the same questions of personal perspective. In terms of challenging the constrictions of society, there is also an element of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit here.
What is most remarkable about the book is the way that it pinpoints the spiritual vacuum in the pursuit of more and shinier personal items. Unlike many books from this time, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance upholds a concept of nobility and worth connected to pursuing material progress in ways that reflect eliminating low quality and replacing it with high quality. Think of this as being like the joy of craftsmanship, compared to the dullness of the assembly line. By setting high standards, expanding those standards, sharing those standards with others, and inspiring people to experience life more fully, we can move forward spiritually as well as intellectually. The motorcycle maintenance details connect these abstractions back to the practical issues of every day, as we roll along across country with the author and his son dealing with the realities of keeping our bike running where the repair and parts options are very limited.
The book's afterward is particularly interesting, in which Mr. Pirsig opines about why this book has had such great and lasting appeal and tells you what happened after the book ends.
Ultimately, I felt uplifted by the high respect that Mr. Pirsig has for his readers. He takes us very seriously, thinks we are intelligent, and pays us the compliment of believing that we can learn to fundamentally change all of our perspectives and experiences.
After you finish this book (if you decide to read it), I suggest that you think about where you disengaged from the challenges, tasks, and people around you. Then, pick out one area and get deeply involved. As you master that one, take on another. And so on. Soon, you will have new and greater respect for yourself . . . and more rewarding relationships.
Get your hands dirty!
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on August 26, 2001
"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" is an entire experience in philosophy and spirituality condensed into what I found to be a very thought-provoking anti-novel. It has three main "streams" of thought: the story of the motorcycle-riding narrator and his son, the story of Phaedrus, and the Chautauqua that is the narrator's way of explaining Phaedrus' philosophy.
Though the first two chapters of the narrator's musings are slow to bring the reader into the plot, intriguing mystery elements are revealed by the end of Chapter 3. By this time, the reader should know that Phaedrus spent his whole life searching for a ghost, found the ghost, "thrashed it good," and became one himself. However, the nameless narrator cannot tell Phaedrus' story without also giving the reader a crash-course in history, philosophy, and of course, motorcycle maintenance (through the Chautauqua, of course). I now warn those who cannot bear long lectures about dead historical figures, slippery concepts or technical minutiae to leave this book alone.
Part I of the book is set chiefly in the Dakotas. During this part, the Chautauqua mostly discusses the classical-romantic split in people's thinking. What makes Robert M. Pirsig's discussions unique is how he deftly brings Zen concepts into the reader's understanding of the split.
Part II begins with the narrator's arrival in Montana. It is the reader's first real encounter with Phaedrus (an unforgettable, though hardly endearing, character) and the first introduction to the "ghost" that he so passionately pursued. (The ghost's name: REASON. One of its popular haunts: SCIENTIFIC METHOD.)
Part III takes place during and right after the narrator and his son's hike up a mountain. The chapters in this section are almost entirely devoted to the Chautauqua. The discussion of the ghost of Reason is dropped and a full, in-depth explanation of something outside Reason, Quality, is taken up. Pirsig takes great pains to say how Quality determines our values, creates our mythos and touches our hearts. Those who like taking detours when an interesting topic distracts them will love this part. Those who don't care for such detours and want to get on with the story will find this part long-winded and over-written. (This is their second warning!)
Part IV continues and ends Phaedrus' story as the narrator and his son go through Oregon and California. In the Chautauqua, Quality is joined by Reason once more. The reader finds out how Phaedrus travelled to the University of Chicago, took his philosophical inquiry to its logical end, and finally became a "ghost" himself. His conclusions about what is Real, about what is True, about what is Beautiful, and about what is Best, can prove liberating to anyone who has been independently wondering about them. The ending also contains an interesting twist in the story of the narrator and his son.
I can find connections between the ideas in this novel and those in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the parables of Kahlil Gibran, the poetry of T. S. Eliot, the books of the Bible, and other great spiritual or philosophical literature that generations have read and shared. (Pirsig even explains the why and how of this phenomenon in the Chautauqua.) To best enjoy this story, the reader must relate to it--or resonate to it.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on September 21, 2006
Anyone with moderate intelligence and sufficient leisure can work out their own private philosophy. The worth of such a philosophy should not be measured by comparison to the great philosophers of the past (or present); rather we should ask how well does it assist its creator in coping with life. Some personal philosophies are crafted in such a way that they help, not just their creator, but large numbers of their creator's fellow beings. Thus it is with the personal philosophy of Robert M. Pirsig, who laments that he has not had an original thought in years.
"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" recounts a semi-mythical motorcycle trip from Chicago to California in which Pirsig confronts and defeats his inner demons and repairs his shattered relationship with his eldest son, Chris. With a past of involuntary hospitalization, a present of recurring nightmares, and a future of anticipated return to commitment, Pirsig rides the roads, introspects, and works on his relationship with his son.
Pirsig's former self, whom he calls Phaedrus, went mad attempting to work out the meaning of the abstract concept of quality; his current self totters on the brink of madness attempting to achieve a quality relationship with his son.
The book covers thousands of miles of countryside and thousands of years of Western philosophy, from Chicago to California, from the Academy to academia. Although the word Zen figures prominently in the title, and although Buddha is mentioned more than Socrates, the philosophy partakes far more of the tradition of the "Iliad" than of the "Bhagavad-gita."
Pirsig should not despair over his inability to formulate original ideas. Qoheleth wrote that "there is nothing new under the sun," and centuries later Omar Khayyam echoed that thought. Pirsig's chosen field of rhetoric recognizes man's basic lack of originality. The first of the five departments of rhetoric is Invention, the devising of arguments. An alternative name for that department is Discovery. The rationale for this alternate name is that the rhetorician does not "invent" arguments, all the arguments already been invented. The rhetorician simply discovers the best arguments for the case at hand. The rhetorician's originality is expressed, not in the department of Invention/Discovery, but in the department of Arrangement. How well are the arguments organized?
Pirsig may not have expressed any original ideas in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", but he has arranged those ideas in (for the 1970's) a fresh, original way. The enduring success of the book attests to Pirsig's creative genius.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 1998
An excellent examination of the deep, nearly invisible, internal incongruities of Western society. Read it in my early twenties and it changed my life. When you read and understand the way our minds and hearts are programmed by our society, and how that programming leads us to goals that don't satisfy or unsuccessful pursuits of happines, it's almost a religious experience.
The reviews posted here don't call enough attention to the paradox Pirsig examines, and here it is:
you are brought up to believe that what is right, what is true, what is logical will prevail in the end. That logic is truth. The problem is that rhetoric overpowers logic, and rhetoric is the tool of those who further their dark ends by pushing our buttons -- buttons we don't even realize we have.
Sure, we all may look at that statement and say "Yeah, so what?" The beauty of this book is how it helps us get past that 'rhetorical' mind set, the "So What" mind set. Getting past it is no small feat. It's also hard to get past the smirks of your peers. This book helps you look inside yourself and realize not only where, but why you are making decisions and behaving in ways which prevent you from growing as a person and transcending the banality of consumption as a way of life.
When you finish reading this book and try to explain it to someone else, you will find yourself at a loss for words because there is virtually no vocabulary, no paradigm around which to discuss it. Yet another major paradox of our society. When you extend this line of thinking a bit, it becomes clear that the message in this book is not for glib conversation, a la Frazier Crane. You can't change other people much; but you can change yourself. And that's an internal conversation.
When I look at how ZAMM asks some painful, bedrock questions about our lives, I wonder where the answers are. The only book that seems to address some of the questions is Steven Covey's book on the Seven Ha! bits. Problem is, how do we un-program ourselves so we can move toward Covey's paradigm. I don't pretend to know the answer. So maybe we need the third book to complete the set for the modern philosopher.
This book demands multiple re-reading. It's the most profound book I've read in English.
31 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2000
This book is the most impressive, encouraging, moving, inspiring book I have read thus far (I'm 31). It's not difficult. It's just big. It covers a gigantic range. Word up, people...the motorcycle journey is a frame for the interesting stuff, and allows us a short break while we process. They start low, running away. They climb. The climb gets tougher, then tops out with a gods-eye view of NOT the world as in planet Earth, but of life, the universe and everything. Too much for mere mortals such as us puny humans to endure, so what goes up must come down. Reach journey's end, and it's time to turn round and go home. And so the cycle (no double meaning intended) continues. Pirsigs message is, I think, this; the ultimate metaphysical truth is beyond our understanding - that is why it ('Quality') must be held undefined. Pursue it with our feeble mental capacities, and you will be declared insane (that's what happened to Pirsig, he was institutionalised, and got BIG voltage to the frontal lobes). The best advice he can give us after surviving this experience and, incredibly, still being able to write, is use your own judgement - 'What is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good - Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?' Nobody's ideas, notions, beliefs are absolutely true, they are all relatively true; relative to when we are, where we are, who we are. E=mc2.I'm sorry not everybody loves the book, but I cannot tell them they're wrong. Abandon shallow ego goals and open your mind to the sound of one hand clapping. Art & science aren't opposed opposites, they are both useful tools when you understand what they can do. Robert, thank you for your loving gift of this book. You will always live in my heart.