Pirsig was a precocious child who nevertheless struggled as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota before being expelled in 1945. He drifted aimlessly for several months before joining the Army and serving in Korea and then returning to school, where he received a B.A. in Eastern Philosophy in 1950. Pirsig enrolled in the University's School of Journalism two years later and, in 1953, became co-editor with Nancy Ann James, an undergraduate journalism student, of The Ivory Tower, part of the University's literary magazine. Pirsig and James married on May 10, 1954.
The book is remarkable on many levels, one of which is the story of a 17-day motorcycle trip of a father and his son from Minnesota to California. It is also a journey into Pirsig’s own past and the story of his attempts to understand and make peace with that past. The book is punctuated with philosophical discussions, primarily about the notion of “quality,” an obsession of Pirsig’s, particularly in a world that seems so enthralled by “quantity.” Readers who like to tackle the big questions will enjoy the book, and many will find that it changes their lives.
Tragically, in 1979, Pirsig's son Chris, who figured prominently in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was stabbed to death during a mugging outside the San Francisco Zen Center.
More Like That ...
- Mark Richardson's Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (2008) follows the author, a journalist who traveled on his motorcycle as closely along Pirsig’s original route as he could. Like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Richardson's book is about many things: the trip itself and the cities and towns through which he traveled and how they compare now with what they were like when Pirsig visited them 40 years before; Pirsig himself and many of the characters from the book; Richardson’s own mid-life crisis; and the impact that Pirsig's book has had on his life.
- Another intellectual motorcycle journey is taken by English professor Ted Bishop, who rode his motorcycle from the University of Alberta to the University of Texas and speculates about great literature along the way in Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books (2006).
- Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (2009) does not involve travel but is similar to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in its philosophical approach to everyday matters and the virtues of working with one’s own hands.
- Garri Gallipoli’s The Tao of the Ride: Motorcycles and the Mechanics of the Soul (1999) combines meditations on motorcycling and Eastern spirituality.
- Pirsig’s only other book is Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991). While it was less well received than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by most readers, some saw it as a more comprehensive expression of Pirsig’s philosophy, and it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992.
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