Zen and The Art – Robert Pirsig

On the subject of maintenance, I note this week the passing of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As usual, being a step or two or three or four behind the rest of the world I was a late comer to Pirsig’s masterpiece. I didn’t read it until I was in my forties but once I did, it became a favourite – one of those rare philosophical books (Antoine de St Exupery’s Wind Sand and Stars being another) that I can read many times, or just dip in and out of, like a chocolate box, and manage to find something new or intriguing each time.

Such reads never grow stale. In the fifteen years or so since I first read Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I must have read cover-to-cover it at least another seven or eight  times, and dropped in for chocolate box ‘visits’ any more times than that. News of his death this week, at the ripe old age of 88, reminds me that I am due to pick it up again and have another read. I seem to find more in it each time – possibly a result of myself getting older and having a greater stock of experiences to bring to the ideas he conjures up, and possibly because of the broad and soul-destroying contempt one so often encounters these days for an abstract like Quality.

As an aspiring writer of fiction I take comfort and courage from Pirsig’s self belief and sheer stubbornness. Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was turned down by 122 publishers, something that seems incredible in retrospect, but must have been intensely frustrating to the man at the time.  One would think that after 30, 40, 50 rejections Pirsig  would have stated to doubt or, more likely, abandon the whole thing. After 100 rejections you’d really start to wonder what on earth you were doing. But 123 was the charm, and he when it finally hit the stands – after being cut from 700,000 words to 200,000 – Pirsig had a bestseller and an enduring American classic on his hands.


  8 comments for “Zen and The Art – Robert Pirsig

  1. Ron Clark
    April 28, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    Seems funny that, as an avid motorcyclist, I still haven’t read this book. His death was reported on the various motorcycle forums I belong to, with comments from “it was a real eye opener” to “I couldn’t get through it”. I’m walking in the same footsteps as you, in that I’ve managed to reach this point in life without giving it a look. I’m always late to the party; I didn’t even read Jupiter’s Travels until a couple years ago.

  2. Roff Smith
    April 29, 2017 at 4:01 am

    Well, you’re still ahead of me as regards Jupiter’s Travels. I’ve not read it at all.

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an easy read in some places, and hard in others. It is a complicated book.

  3. Ron Clark
    April 29, 2017 at 4:58 am

    I think Jupiter’s Travels (and its sequel, Dreaming of Jupiter) will be right up your alley. The motorcycling really isn’t the focus of the books; it was much more about Simon’s personal experiences and observations. It was very lyrical in places, far above the average motorcycle travelogue (“we rode 500 miles and it rained all day, then we ate awful truck stop food” sort of thing).

    I’m not the most existential of cats, so Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance might be lost on me.

  4. Roff Smith
    April 29, 2017 at 5:40 am

    I’ll get hold of a copy.

    One of my favourite – in fact my very favourite – travel/philosophy books is Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de St Exupery. I have read all of his flying books, and like them, but that is my favourite.

  5. Beverley
    April 29, 2017 at 5:48 am

    If you were a few steps behind in your forties, there’s not much hope for me, but nevertheless I now have the 40th anniversary edition of ‘Zen and the Art…” on my Kindle. It won’t be quite so easy to dip into as a book, but I do like to have a few good reads with me when I go away.

  6. Roff Smith
    April 29, 2017 at 5:55 am

    Shows my age – the copy that sits on my bookshelf at the moment is the 25th anniversary edition!

    It’s not an easy read, but an intriguing one.

  7. Jorgensen
    June 18, 2017 at 3:10 pm

    I was assigned that book as reading for a speech communication class decades ago.
    It was a slog to get through it. Maybe my years as a paid bicycle mechanic and too many Kurt Vonnegut novels set me up to not like it.

  8. Andrew
    January 25, 2018 at 3:53 pm

    The (almost) namesake bicycle maintenance books by Lennard Zinn are also exemplary and incredibly useful. The dozens of oily pages in mine are testament to that.

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