Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Motorcycle Repair In ProgressAbove is a current work of art in progress. It is my 1996 Triumph Thunderbird. Against my better judgement I purchased it at the end of last summer and it’s been one of the best mistakes I could make. It’s difficult to explain the way it makes me feel when it’s running well. I almost feel guilty that a material possession could bring me so much joy. Just before the end of October last year one of the carburetors gummed up and left me stranded. When I discovered the problem I knew that I couldn’t just take it to a mechanic to fix. It was something I had to at least try to do myself so that I could understand what makes it tick. This is part of the lesson that I learned from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Before we get too carried away here, it’s important to note that this book is not about motorcycle maintenance and not about Zen Buddhism either. It is a philosophical inquiry into Quality, a problem the narrator first encountered as a professor and continues to examine during a 17-day motorcycle trip with his son, Chris.

During the trip on the old Honda, the narrator and his son are accompanied throughout much of the trip by friends on a brand new BMW. The Sutherlands on their brand new machine prefer to live in the moment and not be wrapped up in the concerns of maintaining their motorcycle and rely on mechanics for repairs. This is said to represent a “romantic” way of life. Meanwhile the narrator is focused on solving problems on his own and has a routine for adjusting the engine valves, checking the spark plugs, and rational problem solving when repair or maintenance is required. This represents a “classical” way of life. The narrator prefers this at first. The pursuit of knowledge and the act of performing these repairs helps to unite the “subject” (the mechanic) and the “object” (the motorcycle). In the end the mechanic prefers to seek a middle ground between living in the moment and being caught up in the details.

Now I’m going to take a step back and say that this is part of what I believe is going on in this book. It can be a tough read at times, but it’s worthwhile enough that I feel that I’ll reread it at some point. I’m not ashamed to say that I may have missed some things.

It can be difficult to separate the fact from fiction in this book. It is true that Robert Pirsig took such a trip with his son just as the narrator does, and also that he spent some time in an institution where he was treated with electroconvulsive therapy for a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and depression.

Although I tend to prefer hardcover binding for books that I plan to keep and reread, the 25th Anniversary paperback from Harper Perennial is truly beautiful. It’s composed of eight page signatures in which one side is torn instead of cut and makes for a great composition. I’ve not seen any other recent editions in person to comment on them, but it appears that every edition since the 25th includes a revised introduction by the author. The introduction clears some things up for those that have only read the original text published in 1974, but won’t make a lot of sense until you’ve actually read the book. Most of these later additions seem to include discussion topics and questions at the end as well.

It’s too early to say if I will be 100% successful in repairing my own motorcycle, but I’ve enjoyed the pursuit of knowledge and getting my hands dirty in the process. Even if I have to take it to a mechanic before I can ride again, I feel like I’ve found a good middle ground between living in the moment and living for the details. In addition to rereading ZAMM at some point, I’d like to read the sequel, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, which further defines the Metaphysics of Quality.

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