Saturday, 20 January 2018

Book Review - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values by Robert M. Pirsig

London: Corgi, 1989 (originally published Bodley Head, 1974)

ISBN 0552101664

This has been a book on my "to read" list for many many years. My brother-in-law mentioned to me that he read it in his twenties and it blew him away, and asked me if he should re-read it; I suggested to him that he may be disappointed if he did. I'm sure I would have been blown away by this book in my twenties as well. Reading it in my fifties... not so much.

As the subtitle states, this book is really an inquiry into values: why do we think the way we (i.e. in the West) do, and is it inhibiting our ability to live a fulfilling life. This premise is explored through the description of a long motorcycle trip taken by the author with his son, and for part of the way with some friends. Incidents on the trip lead to discussions about why we think the way we do, especially the division in thought between technological and artistic thinking (or "classical" and "romantic" reason, as Pirsig terms it).

The book intersperses vignettes from the trip with longer pieces, "chatauqua", where Pirsig expounds on his theories. We learn that Pirsig has received shock treatment while at a mental institution, and prior to his incarceration he was an academic who thought he had stumbled upon a new way of looking at the World. His concept, of "quality", an indefinable thing that stood in between and object or activity and human knowledge or use of it, drives him to insanity.

The concept of "quality" drives the good in the World, from mechanics who care about their work to builders of walls in Korea. Pirsig sees much of the ills of the modern World are down to a lack of "quality" in what is done or made. The other point that Pirsig is at pains to make, and uses his friends as examples of, is that the divide between "classical" and "romantic" reason is an artificial one. Just as there is technical skill in a great work of art, so there are elements of art in building or maintaining bikes, for example.

The final section of the work describes Pirsig's earlier self spending time at the University of Chicago, where he learns that many of his ideas were espoused by the diaspora of Ancient Greek Philosophers, and he sees that the difference between Aristotle and Plato's view of the World contains the essence of his own ideas.

Along the way, Pirsig does provide some genuinely useful tips on motorcycle maintenance, showing how the right attitude can change a painful experience into a learning one.

This book was a million-seller on its release, with the structure of the book introducing complex issues and problems in an accessible way. The writing is workmanlike rather than scintillating, and at times Pirsig spends ten pages describing something that could be done in fewer.

The cover of the copy of this book that I have states "This book will change the way you think and feel about your life." It may have done if I had read it in my youth. In my middle-age I have found what Pirsig describes through experience.

While I did enjoy reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for me it contained no great revelations.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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