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.