Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I offered to write this book review as a result of my own recent experiences during a solo expedition around Australia and Thailand. My introduction to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance occurred when I was in about eighth grade. A classmate suggested the book, so I asked my mom to purchase it for me. I started the book several times, but found it so abstract and technical. The copy moved to my college dorm room with me, still unread, then to my apartments over the next 15 years. As I was packing up my belongings to store while I travelled for four months, I separated the book from the others, thinking, “Maybe I will finally read it on this trip.” The circumstances under which I embarked on the trip couldn’t have provided a better parallel to the struggles of the author/narrator. Because of its philosophical density, I’ve extracted just a few themes on which to base our discussion.
The narrator and his son, Chris, along with friends John and Sylvia, embark on a motorcycle journey from Minnesota to Northern California. Along the way, the narrator, who is thought to be the author, Robert M. Pirsig, provides numerous critical analyses. Although the narrator is merely recording his own thoughts and self-reflection, it is akin to the time spent alone during a solo journey. He recalls his time as a professor in the college classroom. He reveals his application to and ultimate expulsion from his PhD program. He details the dissolution of his marriage and family life. He discusses the travails of traveling with others and the serenity of traveling alone. What results is the narrator’s philosophical musings on life, sometimes pertaining to his observations along the road, sometimes not.
“The real purpose of withholding the grades was to force them to look within themselves, the only place they would ever get a really right answer.” Any educator knows that students and teachers often disagree on the purpose of assignments. The older the student, the more letter grades matter to them. The narrator conducts an experiment within his classroom in which letter grades are replaced with narrative comments on student work. I identified with his plight, as a former teacher, but also interpreted his struggle through the lens of a traveler. Can we really rate our travel experiences with a letter grade? All of my trips would receive an “A” in different categories. I frequently see “Top 10” lists of the “best” places to visit or the “hippest” destinations for the upcoming year. Why should we allow another person to determine what comprises a quality trip? Should we qualify our experiences in narrative form in order to avoid a simple categorization? Some people love taking cruises, while others prefer backpacking through jungles. Our narrator savored the open road of motorcycle travel. These three different types of trips could be considered high quality, but to different people. On my recent trip to Thailand, some travelers were appalled at the cockroaches in the hotel rooms, while others thought it enhanced the total experience. A consensus isn’t necessary.
“Unless you’re fond of hollering you don’t make great conversations on a running cycle. Instead you spend your time being aware of things and meditating on them.” As solo travelers are acutely aware, solo travel provides ample time for self-reflection. The narrator spends his travel time piloting his motorcycle, with his son as the passenger. Motorcycle travel is not conducive to deep, continuous conversation, so many reflective passages emerge during their travel time. Guilt is a frequent theme. The narrator feels guilt for neglecting his son and family during his psychological episodes. He struggles to analyze his son’s reticent, adolescent behavior. I identified with his guilt during my recent trip, since I chose to be absent from family events on Thanksgiving and Christmas, in order to fulfill my dream of visiting Sydney Harbour on New Year’s Eve. The positive outcome to self-reflection is resolution. In order to ward off complete distress, the reflector must come to terms with the issue.
“You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” Every trip you take progresses along a physical journey, but the mental journey is just as relevant. In the span of the story, though it didn’t last very long, the author’s thoughts and mental awareness deepen the more detached he is from reality. I liken this process to immersing yourself in the culture as you travel. You can be a tourist or you can be a traveler. At one point during the story, as the narrator and Chris delve into remote, backwoods camping, I became concerned with his sanity, or the devolution thereof. There is a fine line between immersion and complete isolation from the familiar and the erosion of your normal thought process. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the perfect companion on my recent journey, which provided the time to ponder these themes of everyday life.
Join in the discussion by answering some of these questions in the comments section below, or generate your own.
- Have you ever travelled with companions with whom you’ve disagreed on fundamentals of the trip? Did that experience inspire you to travel solo?
- Psychologically speaking, where is the most remote length your self-reflection during solo travel has taken you?
- In the story, the travelers drift between city stops and small towns. What is your preference when you travel and why?
- The narrator is unable to converse while riding. Where does your mind wander when you are unable to converse?
- How can you apply the idea of quality to your travels? What makes a “quality” trip or experience?