Robert M. Pirsig

Robert M. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, has died at the age of 88.

I first came across this book in 1998 when I was on holiday in Rhodes and I borrowed it from somebody in the hotel. I got through the first few chapters before he asked for it back, and so when I returned to Manchester I bought a copy of my own. It was heavy going in places, and some people at the time (my sister being one of them) said it was rather pretentious and there is some truth to that, but I recall thinking it was very good nonetheless. There were certainly some interesting ideas in there, one of them being that university students should not be graded: instead of chasing marks they should simply attend, because only those who truly wish to learn and apply their knowledge would stick around. I was also swayed by the author’s arguments on quality, which I notice are mentioned in the article I’ve linked to:

The protagonist of Zen attempts to resolve the conflicts between “classic” values that create machinery like the motorcycle, and “romantic” values like the beauty of a country road. He discovers all values find their root in what Pirsig called Quality:

“Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.”

There were two other elements to the book that appealed to me, one of which ought to be pretty obvious to those who know me: that of motorcycle maintenance. As you know I’m an engineer (at least, that’s what my degree certificate says) and I’ve spent a few years of my life as a rather enthusiastic amateur mechanic, and I found the technical details and descriptions of the maintenance philosophies interesting in their own right.

There was also the theme of the great American road trip in which the author discovers himself, which at the time interested me a lot. On my wall in my student hall of residence I had a huge map of the United States, and for a long time I planned to drive around as much of it as I could. Some stories would now have me tell you that I never found the time and life intervened, but not this one: I went to the US in the summer of 2000, rented a car, and did just that, covering 26 states (if I include those I went through on the Greyhound). But it wasn’t Pirsig’s book which inspired me so much as William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, which I’d found knocking around back home in Wales. While it doesn’t have the Zen wisdom and chapters on motorcycle maintenance, it is a far better account of a journey of self-discovery across America.

I’ve read Blue Highways at least twice, Zen only once. Both are with me here in Paris. Perhaps I should read Pirsig’s tome once more, and see what I find different in the nineteen years since I last read it. I’m sure the ending will be no less heartbreaking.

Share

8 thoughts on “Robert M. Pirsig

  1. The one part of Zen And… I always recall is the part where our main man noticed his friend was offended by him not using an approved part for a repair job but improvising a ready solution. In a way that had a profound (yeah, pretentious I know) impact on me because it suggested to me that answers to problems didn’t have to come from usual sources in ready made packages. Apply this to, I dunno, politics maybe and we can still see results?

    I also once read part of the book on a long car journey to two of my sons and they were utterly absorbed.

  2. “university students should not be graded: instead of chasing marks they should simply attend, because only those who truly wish to learn and apply their knowledge would stick around.”

    Nope. Any fool can pay attention to the stuff that’s immediately interesting. You need the goad of the risk of failing your exams to get you to pay attention to the dull bits.

  3. Any fool can pay attention to the stuff that’s immediately interesting.

    In a mechanical engineering degree those bits were few and far between.

  4. One of the crappiest best sellers ever.

    And Tim, as an engineer, you should know that quality = sufficient for the job+ absence of variation,

    We aren’t trying to rewrite the Iliad.

  5. And Tim, as an engineer, you should know that quality = sufficient for the job+ absence of variation,

    I’m a shockingly bad engineer as my colleagues will tell you. I do like your definition, though.

  6. By strange coincidence these two books influenced me to the extent that they changed my life. In a boring technical job on a chemical plant, I devoured all the travel books available, including Robert Byron, Laurie Lee, Colin Thubron, Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor and many others. I eventually became an oilfield gipsy, and have spent the last 40 years overseas. In fact I used to read and enjoy your blog when I lived in Dubai. Of all the above, the clarity of Pirsig’s prose, and the many levels it can achieve on re-reading made this book the most rewarding I have ever read. It is no coincidence that both books above were lent to friends and never returned, repeatedly!

  7. morteen,

    Thanks for the comment! Can’t believe I still have readers from my Dubai days, that seems like a lifetime ago. Thanks for sticking with me!

    You have an interesting biography…and Colin Thubron is my favourite travel writer. I loved Among the Russians, In Siberia, and The Lost Heart of Asia.

  8. Finally, while on the subject of life-changing books, Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard” is one that affected me deeply, and may appeal to lovers of “Zen”

Comments are closed.