PHOTOS | KEL McINTOSH
If you picked up this book recently, it's probably because you’ve heard it's a classic, you love motorcycles, and you feel guilty as fuck that Robert M Pirsig died before you actually got around to reading it*. Or is that just me?
Pirsig’s fictionalised autobiography recounts the journey of the author and his son, Chris, venturing across the north-west of the United States, sallying forth from Minneapolis in Minnesota, onto North Dakota, crossing Montana (overlapping part of my own recent journey), Idaho, Oregon and culminating in Northern California. There are two plot lines explored: that of the author and his son’s relationship while riding interstate, and that of Phaedrus and his ‘chautauquas’ and boundless (and at times relentless) quest to define Quality.
The tale delves a bit more into metaphysics than motorcycle maintenance but the connection is irrefutable, and provides food for thought on the many processes required to function concurrently and harmoniously to propel you forward, be it on machine or otherwise.
Often stubborn to a fault, Pirsig’s stoicism in the face of his son’s desire to connect with him can be frustrating. On the other hand, Phaedrus’ ‘knife’ (which is so eager to divide things into ever smaller parts for analysis) can feel callous to those who recognise value in grey areas; even the narrator finds fault in approaching everything solely from this method. Still, there are merits for mortals to be found in the harsh divisions. I found myself reading and re-reading Pirsig’s analysis of ‘Gumption’ (the character trait, not the cleaning paste), with an anxiety activity in chapter 26 that is applicable to both bikes and life. Even if you only read chapter 26, you might find yourself a little more zen.
If you are struggling with the philosophy aspect of the book, you could probably read it by skipping paragraphs (but that is kind of cheating). Not being a philosophy major myself, I found the Phaedrus and Quality rants got a little long in the tooth, however I implore that you persist - there is purpose. I still don’t understand it all, but then again, there are many things I don’t understand. But I am at no risk of being any less a person for making the effort to understand. This one certainly deserves a re-read.
*This, unfortunately, is also the exact way I discovered Christopher Hitchens.
Reviewer's note: Personally, I am a stickler for purchasing hardcover first edition books. Call it habit, call it obsession, whatever. I’ve always felt at home in a library and, naturally, having a library at home is on par with having my own shed. My copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the 1974 copy so when I was up to page 324 and had to head out of town, my first edition hardcover didn’t quite make the light-packing cut. While traveling I became so desperate to finish the book I downloaded a pdf copy of the 1984 version which contained an afterword (not in the first ed obvs), the reading of which had me in tears. If I had only read the earlier edition, I’d never have known of the afterword’s existence, and that knowledge has now adjusted my perspective on the value of editions beyond the usual notion that the “publisher wants to shuffle out another reprint”.
Editor's note: Zen tends to elicit descriptions of favourite quotes. Mine are:
Kel has the face of a siren and the mouth of a drunken sailor. She enjoys dancing up a storm to Slayer and 1930s jazz, whispering sweet nothings to her CM250 ‘Bronson’ and delicately adjusting her carburettors, but can also tell you the genus of Magnoliophyta. Kel is our Associate Editor and Project Manager, and has the organisational prowess of a circus ringmaster, using it to crack the IVV team into shape with colour coded calendars and to-do lists.