817 of 849 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.
405 of 457 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
144 of 161 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2000
Part road novel, part philosophy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ("ZMM") met with huge critical and commercial success when first published in 1974. Narrator and son ride from Minneapolis to San Francisco; meanwhile, both are haunted by the narrator's past insanity, brought about by his "chasing the ghost of rationality". A series of philosophical monologues addresses questions both mundane - how to fix a motorcycle - and metaphysical.
Today ZMM retains a sizeable following, although criticism of it is very polarised: Pirsig's fervent self-assurance when dealing with philosophical questions converts some readers into "followers" and tends to exasperate everyone else. Mostly structured as a "solution" rather than an "inquiry", as the title claims, ZMM's philosophy is too often accepted without question, and it is frequently and regrettably true that the more positive the review, the more philosophically naïve the reviewer. Nonetheless, this should not disallow ZMM from being considered on its own merits.
ZMM is not an introductory philosophy text, more a "once-in-a-lifetime" philosophical statement; the comparison has already been made with Hofstadter's "Gödel, Escher, Bach", and Hofstadter's description - "a statement of my religion" - could well describe ZMM, too. When one considers the motivation required to sustain Pirsig's long and solitary struggle in writing and publishing ZMM, the rhetorical fervour of his arguments becomes more understandable. Those who attack Pirsig as pompous or narcissistic fail to appreciate the degree of self-belief needed to complete such a highly individualistic work. So, we can certainly admire him for trying - but is ZMM any good?
Some of Pirsig's arguments rest uneasily, such as his blithe acceptance of scientific relativism; and in rejecting subject-object dualism, he paints himself into some peculiar corners, such as his disquiet at the lack of beer cans littering Crater Lake National Park. But there is much in ZMM that is good and thought-provoking, too, especially where education is concerned: all teachers should read this book. And even during his tougher metaphysical monologues, only the driest, most rigid mindset could fail to find Pirsig's rhetoric engaging. Here, his wild claims about the importance of his philosophical arguments are gently counterbalanced by his acknowledged previous insanity: Pirsig takes care to label them the "ramblings of a madman", though not without a certain knowing irony.
ZMM is not just philosophy: it is also a fine piece of travel writing, and a history of Pirsig's teaching career. It remains a novel, however, and not an autobiography: whilst the events described did occur, subtle details have been changed. Most importantly, Robert Pirsig "the author" differs from the narrator, who in turn differs from his former personality ("Phaedrus"). The subtle conflict between the narrator's unifying philosophy, and the barely resolved tensions between narrator/Phaedrus and narrator/son, produces a fully intended irony. Criticism of the narrator is unfair and misguided when it is directed at the author.
Pirsig writes with great clarity. Well-structured sentences and careful use of italics give his writing great explanatory power, reminiscent, for this reviewer, of the biologist Richard Dawkins. We may not agree with Pirsig, but we are rarely in any doubt about what he means to say. Nonetheless, there are inevitable uncertainties at the core of ZMM, concerning reason and its limits. The antipsychiatric "insanity as enlightenment" nettle is never fully grasped, though one senses that this is Pirsig's belief; moreover, the analytic intractability of the Eastern philosophy that he embraces means that ultimately, the "inquiry" never reasons its way to an answer. Those seeking an absolutist metaphysical system will not find it here, and one can imagine Pirsig's sense of unease at becoming a latter-day religious guru.
ZMM is very much unique: four and a half years in the writing, but decades, one senses, in the germination. Fans will enjoy the 25 or so extra pages, cut from the original manuscript, available in DiSanto's "Guidebook to ZMM" - but skip the dreadful philosophy chapters. Pirsig wrote a sequel of sorts, "Lila", in 1991, but its sour atmosphere and slack reasoning make it strictly for the converted. Evidently Pirsig coped badly with his post-ZMM fame: one can imagine the sackloads of witless fan-mail. Unquestionably, for this reviewer, ZMM can stand alone: a model of clarity in written argument, a fine American road novel, and an inspiring demonstration of one man's ability to think for himself.
49 of 54 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.
41 of 45 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.
75 of 91 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!
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2007
I've been meaning to read Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for some time now. I finally got around to reading it (or in this case listening to it) and, in general, I liked it. However, I also have a few complaints.
First the good stuff. I enjoyed Pirsig's overall presentation and narrative style. His writing is animated and hyperdescriptive. This fact really brings the characters and their situations to life for the reader. I think this book is as timely as ever now, especially with the further explosion of technology since its original publication. As an engineer, his complaints about engineering and science without feeling and craftsmanship is spot on. His warnings about an ever present consumer, throwaway culture were prescient indeed.
The idea of using the motorcycle journey through the American west as a metaphor for his own journey through the landscape of philosphical thought was well chosen. It definitely has a modern Thoreau quality to it. Although there is plenty of purely abstract philosophical discussion in here, some of the thoughts presented are not just esoteric topics but also practical and timeless questions every man should ask himself at some point in his life. Who am I? What do I believe in? What is my role as a father, a teacher, and a student in the face of life's messiness and uncertainties? Should I tell my kid the harsh truth or should I give him a sugar-coated, Walt Disney version of life? Should one just unquestioningly accept the status quo and reap life's material rewards by "playing the game" or should one take the painful high road and rock the boat by seeking the truth for its own value? Pirsig clearly prefers the latter and so he bucks the authority of the hoity-toity academic establishment. For this his alter-ego character Phaedrus becomes the book's protagonist. However, as with everything, it comes at a cost. A big cost. I can personally relate to many of these ideas.
I like that Pirsig offers no easy answers to any of these questions either. He contemplates, contemplates some more, comes to a conclusion, doubles back, takes a mental turn, stops, contemplates some more all the while pondering each question with as much clarity as humanly possible.
My biggest complaint with the book was that it was a bit longwinded in places. Much of the abstract philosphical discussions on quality were excessive and unnecessary and could've been condensed a bit. It seemed like alot pointless mental tallywacking to me. Ironically, Pirsig seems to come to the very same conclusion by the end of it all. Perhaps it was just part of a whole cathartic journey for him that needed to be worked through, I don't know.
All in all I liked this book though and I would recommend it to anyone with a patient, thoughtful side. Results-oriented types might find it irritating though. As I said, it offers no easy answers but instead raises many questions. It also makes some interesting observations on modern life and the culture we live in. Recommended.
195 of 246 people found the following review helpful
There is a sort of elitism about ZMM that requires a person to either proclaim it a masterpiece, or be subjected to scorn at not being smart enough to "get it." I notice how many other one-star reviews begin with an acknowledgment that it takes courage to dislike this book, which reveals something ominous about the cultural mystique that surrounds it.
But the book itself is tedious. I am NOT saying that the philosophy within it can't be life-changing and enlightening, which is why many readers adore this book, but as a book itself it's as profoundly dull as it is profound. There are several crucial problems.
First, the "plot" device of a cross-country motorcycle trip is nearly disposable. You can barely call this a novel, or claim it has a plot at all. What we have instead is a father-son road trip, a topic which had me excited to read this book. What a wonderful context for meaningful storytelling! But no, instead we have a "plot" that nearly gets abandoned; it gets so distant that at times Pirsig merely throws in an obligatory comment about the road going uphill now, as a token gesture to what was supposed to be the book's whole premise. Consequently, the narrator actually becomes LESS likable, as the 12-year-old son is nearly shoved aside for the narrator's self-involved musings. The narrator rhapsodizes endlessly about HIS philosophical obsessions, while the emotions and experiences of the son are happenstance story litter. This is ironic for a book claiming to be an investigation of values and quality. Here's a thought: how about you stop musing about your own brilliance, and actually PRACTICE quality values with your son? Merely thinking while he sits in the background of your self-absorption is abominable.
Second, Pirsig accidentally mistook this for a novel. It's not. It's a series of essays with a few tacked-on details about road sights interspersed. Pirsig doesn't even pretend otherwise; the narrator actually begins many passages with phrases like, "What I'd like to talk about now is..." The narrator makes no effort to hide the fact that he's simply lecturing. If Pirsig wanted to do this, he should have just written essays instead. But to write such dry essays and disguise them as first-person musings is a dull thing to inflict on us. These "Chautauquas" go on and on..."Now let's compare Euclidian geometry with..." AARGH!
This is the Ekhart Tolle of bygone decades. I've seen reviews that call this "exhilarating," and I always wonder if people read the same book as I. Or perhaps they also regard collecting antique twine to be an "exhilarating" hobby, or spending hours ignoring your bored kid while you debate Aristotle to be "exhilarating."
Real Zen masters teach us that after enlightenment, go chop wood. In others words, enlightenment ought not to take you out of the everyday tasks that must be attended to. Perhaps that could include using a cross-country road trip to actually explore your child's mind, bonding with him in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, rather than tossing him crumbs of attention so you can get back to your deep, clever "Chautauquas"?
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.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2004
This book opens:
And what is good, Phaedrus,
And what is not good--
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?
If you are one of those that can keep your eyes open through this book then it will likely touch your mind and your life for years to come.
I first read this work as a high school student in an AP English class where we studied it, discussed it, disected it and taught it to one another. This book taught me how to think. And it taught me I can understand anything if it's written clearly enough and if I'm willing to put some thought into it.
Everything in this book interconnects...the characters involved, the setting, the philosophy--decoding the connections (such as wind and heights to phaedrus' appearance) is half the fun.
Reading it again after 15 years I find that some of my basic assumptions about the world and life stem from this book. I remember some of Pirsig's babies such as "stuckness" and "gumption" and they are thoughts I've loved to play with over the years. Other ideas--such as the split between eastern and western cultures and various philosophers--have perhaps subtily played with ME through the years. I enjoyed discovering this during my latest re-read.
It is so worth the effort to read about Pirsig's views on mechanization, the front windshield being compared to a TV screen, teaching english and so many other things. If you like to think (and why wouldn't you?) you will love this book.
That being said,I do feel that Pirsig's logic is flawed. And I enjoyed every step of figuring out why I believe the way I do. This book is a fascinating study into the personality of a proud intellectual grappling with subjectivity.
I say, read this book and think.