Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Maintenance is a 17-day motorcycle journey across the United States done by the author (though he is not identified in the book) and his son Chris, joined for nine days by John and Sylvia Sutherland, a befriended couple. During this novel, I also went on a journey filled with a countless number of insightful, philosophical discussions the author stirs up. This story makes you think and ponder questions just as the main character is doing. The story is told in the first person and you get a unique view into the mind of a man who is on the razor edge of genius and insanity.

His basic concern is with the following, seemingly simple, but an infinitely complex question: “How can one distinguish “good” from “bad? “. This question also arose when I read The Secret History. The students that committed murder twice in that novel had no intentions of being “evil” people or committing such sinful acts, they in fact thought of themselves as “good people”.

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But one can never really tell. The question is posed and addressed in many different ways throughout Pirsig’s book, and along the way, the concepts of truth, value and quality are analyzed and pulled apart numerous times.

Mr. Pirsig has an uncanny sense of timing, and he never allows the heavier passages to labor on too long. This is avoided by craftily sprinkling his philosophical discourse among very down-to-earth and pleasant observations made during a motorcycle. Not being one to lend himself easily to corny cliches, I nevertheless believe that this is one book that definitely could dramatically change your life, whether or not you believe in Zen or have ever sat on a motorcycle. I went into this book expecting a novel. There is a plot, and a good one at that, but everything is encased in philosophy.

It is all fascinating, even to a new-comer in the subject, like me, but you simply cannot expect it to be a story you read straight through. One of the great strengths of this book is the ability of the author to write about and link philosophical concepts in a way that you can easily understand and which make sense. The book is heavy going in some places, but I can only imagine how hard it would have been to read if a less skilled author tried to write it. Through motorcycling with his son Chris and friends in the Midwest, they encounter within themselves and others, thoughts, feelings and truths that might never have been discovered.

The challenge of this kind of trip forces you to look inward for strength, determination and trust. You become your own best friend. As the author moves onto the philosophy of life and being, he has done some serious introspective. So much so that he has become at times delusional and out of step with everyone, which he blames for many of the problems that he is facing as well as others on this path. One has to agree with the author that our western society has made it almost impossible for one to follow their own path. There are so many distractions along the way, which makes it easy for one to falter.

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