I saw that today is the birthday of Robert Pirsig (born in Minneapolis in 1928) who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values in 1974. That book has sold more than 5 million copies, which is a good number of books but a huge number for a book that is heavy on philosophy.

There is a meme the past few weeks that has re-emerged on Facebook to list ten books that have stayed with you over the years. It is difficult for me to pick only ten, but in my list of books that have staying power and that I will reread or dip back into again and again, Pirsig’s has a solid place.

His tale of a motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California is full of his thoughts on Eastern and Western philosophy and a desire to make them work together.

The book opens this way:

“I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning. The wind, even at sixty miles an hour, is warm and humid. When it’s this hot and muggy at eight-thirty, I’m wondering what it’s going to be like in the afternoon. […] In the wind are pungent odors from the marshes by the road. We are in an area of the Central Plains filled with thousands of duck hunting sloughs, heading northwest from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas. […] I’m happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that. Tensions disappear along old roads like this.”

Pirsig in 1968 with his son, Chris, at a rest stop near Breckenridge, North Dakota.

Pirsig was a precocious child, with an I.Q. of 170 at age 9. He skipped several grades, got his high school diploma at 15 and entered the University of Minnesota to study biochemistry that fall.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he describes the central character (who we take to be Pirsig, though the book reads like a novel) as someone interested in science but not as a career.

Pirsig was expelled from the university for poor grades and one reason given is that he lost interest in the science when he came to understand that there was always more than one workable hypothesis to explain any given phenomenon. The idea that science had limitations was something of a revelation to him.

He did a stint in the Army in 1946 and was stationed in South Korea until 1948. Upon his discharge, he settled in Seattle, completed BA in Eastern Philosophy and attended Banaras Hindu University in India, to study Eastern Philosophy and culture. He also did some graduate work in philosophy and journalism at the University of Chicago.

He married Nancy Ann James in 1954 and they had two sons: Chris (1956) and Theodore (1958). He taught creative writing at Montana State University-Bozeman for several years.

But Pirsig suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals between 1961 and 1963. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression and was treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) several times.

The cover of my original paperback copy.

Most of his life story appears in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which was finally published in 1974 after being rejected 121 times.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (subtitle “An Inquiry into Values”) is a first person description of a 17-day motorcycle journey by the unnamed narrator accompanied by his son Chris. (For the first half of the trip, his friends John and Sylvia are also with them.)

Along the way are philosophical discussions (referred to as Chautauquas). The discussions are commentaries on both the present-day journey and the narrator’s past. His past self is a character, Phaedrus (from Plato’s dialogue). Phaedrus was a professor of creative and technical writing at a small college. He became so obsessed with trying to define what it meant to be good or quality noy only as a writer but in life. The pursuit drives him insane.  writing, and what in general defines good, or “quality”. His philosophical investigations eventually drove him insane, and he was subjected to electroconvulsive ECT therapy which permanently changed his personality.

Through the book’s dialogs with Phaedrus and the people that accompany him or he meets along the way, the narrator is able to reconcile himself with his past. The book also serves as a short course in the history of philosophy of  Western and Eastern philosophy.

The book has sold more than 5 million copies. It may be the only philosophy some people have ever read – or enjoyed.

In 1974, Pirsig was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to allow him to write a second book.

Unfortunately, in 1979, Pirsig’s son Chris was stabbed to death during a mugging outside the San Francisco Zen Center. Pirsig has written about this in the afterword to subsequent editions of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Although he and his second wife, Kimball, considered aborting the child she conceived in 1980, he ultimately decided that this unborn child was a continuation of the life pattern that Chris had occupied. This child’s name is Nell.

In 1991, he published  Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals which is as close to a sequel to ZAMM but is really a continuation to further develop his “Metaphysics of Quality.” Phaedrus is still searching and is now bouncing ideas off of Lila, an aging, desperate “wharf-bar pickup.”

In the years following the publication of his two books and the death of his son, Pirsig became reclusive. He subsequently traveled around the Atlantic Ocean by boat, has lived in Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, England and in various places around the United States. As far as I can find, he currently lives in New Hampshire and does not publish or give interviews.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was an important book to me in college. Years later, I picked up a book that is a Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance thinking that there must be more to the novel than I had understood in my younger years. Though there probably is more in the book – like philosophical concepts that I floated over – I think what I was looking for was in the first book. I know that what bring me back to the book (and I’m confident that this is true for many other readers) is the searching in my life.

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