Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Table of contents
Robert Maynard Pirsig Chronicles a Journey of Reflection
Modern lives are going by increasingly quickly, with distractions aplenty to divert our attention from anything but ourselves. From our work and obligations to the many devices providing us with instant entertainment, the world we live in is increasingly furnished in a way which makes it difficult to slow things down, and take some time to really think about life, like Robert Maynard Pirsig did in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
As far as books go, this one is a fairly unusual offering, which by the way ended up being the author’s magnum opus in many peoples’ eyes. The story is biographical and factual, though of course, it is difficult to ascertain the veracity of the many details presented by Pirsig over the course of the road trip; we learn of them as he remembers them.
The premise for the plot of the book is a rather simple one. Robert Pirsig and his son undertake a road trip on their motorcycles without any truly concrete goal in mind, other than to live on the road and find the time to think and discuss life from all possible points of view.
They think about and discuss various concepts of Buddhism throughout their journey, trying to find its applications to modern life, and attempting to ascertain how much truth they can find in the old teachings. They ruminate about the world in a more general sense and consider where humanity might be headed with its current ambitions.
The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Ultimately, this road trip is much more than a profound bonding experience between father and son; its an attempt to determine how life ought to be lived. There are, however, possible consequences to delve so profoundly into the fabric of existence, and Robert Maynard Pirsig experienced them like few others.
Understanding the Purpose of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
It’s been almost fifty years since the book was first published, and it seems to me as time went on, an increasing number of people seem to have a negative first experience with it. While everyone is, of course, free to have their own opinions on any subject, it seems to me many are looking at it from a more limited perspective and missing out on a more profound experience.
The first complaint I’ve seen brought quite a few times is the fact the book doesn’t teach much about Zen, nor does it act as a manual on how to maintain a motorcycle. If you’re looking for how-to guides on both of those topics, then this is probably not the kind of book you ought to be looking for.
The purpose of the book isn’t to explain us those two concrete things, but rather, the contrast between what they symbolize. On one hand, Zen represents the carefree and spiritual attitude participants of the cultural revolution of the 1970s, while motorcycle maintenance, on the other hand, stands in for the cold and calculating faces of science and technology.
It explores how our world gets caught up in dichotomies, and no matter what language we use to define them, throughout the ages they haven’t changed much, often boiling down to science and empiricism on one end, with passion and romanticism on the other. A significant chunk of the reflections in this book seem geared, whether directly or not, to the reconciliation of these two worlds.
While it does seem like much of the philosophy discussed in the book is on a surface level, I assure you those who are willing to put the effort and read between the lines will find there is a whole lot more than meets the eye. Whether through words or actions, Pirsig seldom observes anything without a real purpose behind it.
The Long Road Ahead
Though philosophy and Buddhism are the principal driving forces of this book, I found the actual road trip was no less interesting in its own right. While the story is non-fictional, the writing style employed by the author disguises it in the appearance of a novel, using a structure and language which give rise to a free-flowing plot.
The pacing is also something I believe many modern readers will have a bit of trouble getting used to, being as far a cry from the countless thrillers and bite-sized murder mysteries which can be found at a dime-a-dozen.
The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
It’s paced like an actual road trip would be, with plenty of downtime while driving for personal reflections while taking in the passing scenery, which Pirsig describes so vividly I have no doubt it was engraved in his memory until the end of his life. Rest assured, there are more than a few surprising elements which make this road trip one worth retelling.
Once again, those who pay close attention to the text will likely get more out of the road trip segments as well, largely because they often mirror or demonstrate ideas which were reflected-upon and discussed earlier. It’s not always obvious, sometimes even being extremely subtle, but the connection is virtually always there.
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I’m not going to sit here and pretend I know and understand the book in its entirety; it’s the kind of work which can be read again and again years, if not decades down the line, and be subjected to new interpretations. I believe any person can get something unique out of it, something pertaining only to them an their own life experiences.
The Final Verdict
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Maynard Pirsig is a unique piece of literature which, in my opinion, has withstood the test of time, still holding knowledge and ideas easily applicable to modern society, all while telling a compelling father-and-son road trip story.
If you’re looking for the kind of book which can really challenge your perspective on life, send you into deep thinking and still hold new discoveries years down the line, then I strongly suggest you give this book a chance.
Robert Maynard Pirsig
(September 6, 1928 – April 24, 2017)
Robert Maynard Pirsig was an American writer and philosopher whose best-known works were Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.
Among the many awards he received were the 1974 Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as the Outstanding Achievement Award in 1975 from the University of Minnesota.