- Paperback: 436 pages
- Publisher: Quill; 25th edition (May 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0688171664
- ISBN-13: 978-0688171667
- Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 5.5 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 1,665 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,154,137 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values Paperback – May, 1999
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In his now classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig brings us a literary chautauqua, a novel that is meant to both entertain and edify. It scores high on both counts.
Phaedrus, our narrator, takes a present-tense cross-country motorcycle trip with his son during which the maintenance of the motorcycle becomes an illustration of how we can unify the cold, rational realm of technology with the warm, imaginative realm of artistry. As in Zen, the trick is to become one with the activity, to engage in it fully, to see and appreciate all details--be it hiking in the woods, penning an essay, or tightening the chain on a motorcycle.
In his autobiographical first novel, Pirsig wrestles both with the ghost of his past and with the most important philosophical questions of the 20th century--why has technology alienated us from our world? what are the limits of rational analysis? if we can't define the good, how can we live it? Unfortunately, while exploring the defects of our philosophical heritage from Socrates and the Sophists to Hume and Kant, Pirsig inexplicably stops at the middle of the 19th century. With the exception of Poincaré, he ignores the more recent philosophers who have tackled his most urgent questions, thinkers such as Peirce, Nietzsche (to whom Phaedrus bears a passing resemblance), Heidegger, Whitehead, Dewey, Sartre, Wittgenstein, and Kuhn. In the end, the narrator's claims to originality turn out to be overstated, his reasoning questionable, and his understanding of the history of Western thought sketchy. His solution to a synthesis of the rational and creative by elevating Quality to a metaphysical level simply repeats the mistakes of the premodern philosophers. But in contrast to most other philosophers, Pirsig writes a compelling story. And he is a true innovator in his attempt to popularize a reconciliation of Eastern mindfulness and nonrationalism with Western subject/object dualism. The magic of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance turns out to lie not in the answers it gives, but in the questions it raises and the way it raises them. Like a cross between The Razor's Edge and Sophie's World, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance takes us into "the high country of the mind" and opens our eyes to vistas of possibility. --Brian Bruya
"A miracle . . . sparkles like an electric dream." -- The Village Voice
"An unforgettable trip." -- Time
"It is filled with beauty. . .a finely made whole that seems to emanate from a very special grace." -- Baltimore Sun
"The book is inspired, original. . . . The analogies with Moby-Dick are patent." -- The New Yorker
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One of the complaints I see here is that there isn't much of the title's Zen nor much motorcycle maintenance, either -- and I note that the author says something about this in his introduction, so it must be true, right? -- yet I believe there is plenty of both. If the reader is expecting an introduction to Zen or a How To manual on motorcycle maintenance, those will not be found. It's not even the author sharing his enjoyment of either of the two fields with his audience. But the themes that run throughout the book explore many of the same ideas the Buddha did, and several concepts important to motorcycle maintenance that will not be found in manuals are discussed throughout the work. But the title really represents the duality that Pirsig puts under his microscope: Zen represents the hippie "go with the flow" attitude that is contrasted to the "slice and dice" schemes of technology, via motorcycle maintenance. And in the end, the title doesn't say just motorcycle maintenance; it's the "Art " that's critical, because one thing the book is aiming for is to show us that the science of technology is an art -- or at least should be an art -- and that the two ways of looking at life don't need to be in opposition, but can be quite naturally blended, to the benefit of all concerned.
It might seem like the novel is caught in its time, with language about those who see things as "groovy" vs. "the squares" but the dichotomy between the two has been under discussion in various forms for centuries: romanticism vs. empiricism, passion vs. logic, science vs. religion. The same split is found today underlying two sides of the debate over climate change. If the book is not approached as being literally about Zen and motorcycle maintenance, but as using these as stand-ins for concepts that can be much larger -- or even much smaller -- there is a lot to be gained here.
Another complaint is that the protagonist is not sympathetic, but that's because this isn't a novel written from the romantic side, nor, really, the empirical side -- it's not even a novel, though it reads a lot like one -- it is a true-enough tale of relationships between two related men, and a father and a son, and a road trip that carries with it time for plenty of slow discussion of philosophy. The book takes its time putting the pieces together, and the author isn't trying to win our love -- if you can approach the book on its own terms rather than with a whole load of expectations about what it should do and how it should do it, you may get something out of it -- but to truly enjoy it, you've got to go with the flow, you know?
I know I get a lot out of it every time I read it. I love road stories, and this one is paced just like a real long-distance trip, with long stretches of time to think things through interspersed with short breaks for taking care of the business of life. That what's going on in the environment, relationships, and other encounters reflects what's being thought through in the long stretches is a small bonus. The writing is clean and evocative, enjoyable. For the most part, the carefully constructed introduction to all the elements needed to understand the philosophy is gentle enough to be clear and not overly taxing, at least until the deepest parts, which can be hard to follow (and for good reason). The elements of psychological mystery captivate me each time.
I first read ZAMM the year it was released, in the mid-70s, and have read it at least every five years since then, and each time I thoroughly enjoy it. The first time through, I could not follow the philosophy all the way down into the descent into madness it brought on. Five years later -- with time for the ideas to be examined through my own life -- I got it, even agreed with it. This time, this reading, is the first time I ended up doubting the validity of the greatest philosophical insights the story offers. Ironically, it's my deepening understanding of Buddhism that changed my mind.
There really is a lot of Buddhism in this book, and not specifically Zen, either, but the deepest themes common to all forms of Buddhism. The questions about the wisdom of dividing the world up into a duality of the physical vs. the mental, of seeing ourselves as somehow separate from everything else, these were explored by the Buddha, too, though the framework he used to discuss these ideas was -- obviously -- nothing to do with motorcycles. In Dependent Arising he, too, considers how it comes to be that we split the world in two. "Name and form" he calls this split, and later thinkers have described what he was talking about as the same subject-object division that Pirsig is mulling over in ZAMM. The Buddha, though, says that it is "desire for existence" -- not quality -- that, to borrow Pirsig's phrase, "is the generator of everything we know". I tend to agree with the Buddha because I can see in our lives, and through our sciences, what that desire for existence is and why it drives us to divide the world up the way we do, and exactly how it leads us into trouble. I can't say the same for Pirsig's metaphysics, but that doesn't stop me from deep enjoyment of the book. I hope to have another half-dozen five-yearly reads, if I'm lucky, and -- who knows -- maybe I will come around again to see it the way he does.
It's a little long winded, the book could have easily lost about 100 pages. And I found it boring at times. But these drawbacks are worth it to get the life lessons out of this book, and the story of the father-son motorcycle journey.
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Author Robert Pirsig would agree with that statement, having been diagnosed with paranoid...Read more