Huckberry Must-Read: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Dive into this American classic of philosophy and the open road
November 16, 2015Words by Tim HawkenPhotos by Dylan Gordon

A whopping 121 publishers rejected Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance before it was picked up by William Morrow & Co. in 1974. The book went on to sell more than five million copies globally. If those ridiculous statistics can tell you anything it’s that, firstly, while this book is seen as an American classic, many people find it largely unreadable. And secondly, don’t ever give up on your dreams. Your genius idea really could be genius.

However, before you rush off to pitch that hydraulic pogo stick on Kickstarter, I should let you know that Robert Pirsig, the author of ZAMM, actually was a genius with an IQ of 170. For context, Einstein and Stephen Hawking each scored a mere 160.   

The book is really philosophy wrapped in a story; think the likes of Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It follows the author, along with two friends and his son Chris, on a motorcycle journey across the USA from Minnesota to California. The trip makes up the backbone of the general narrative, but is intersected frequently by third-person flashbacks about the author’s life as a philosophy student turned creative writing professor, who eventually had a mental breakdown and went into electroshock therapy. Those flashbacks are also broken up by long philosophical expositions.

I think that for the majority of those who don’t like the book, it’s these expositions that people find hard to get through. For me, they are a shining light of interesting ideas amongst what is a lively, yet otherwise drama-free ride across America.

The main idea Pirsig explores in ZAMM is the definition of Quality, with a capital Q.

The main idea Pirsig explores in ZAMM is the definition of Quality, with a capital Q. An offhand comment by a fellow teacher at community college — “I hope you’re teaching quality” — sends Pirsig into a spiral of philosophical enquiry into what Quality actually is. Before this literally drives him insane, Pirsig suggests that Quality is undefinable, but is related to what Buddhists refer to as the Godhead and what ancient Greeks understood as Truth. I found this pretty deep and interesting, but an engineer I know who read the book said it made him want to throw his copy across the room. Apparently in Engineering 101 you get taught that Quality = Fitness For Purpose.

Funny thing is, this is kind of what Pirsig is aiming at as well. The idea is that if people stopped thinking quality was absolute, instead of being subjective and situational, we’d all be way happier. For example, if you have a quality Ferrari but are disappointed when it doesn’t tackle an off-road track so well, you should probably adjust your idea of what quality is in this context. Or, just go buy a Porsche Cayenne. Whatever.

The other big idea that Pirsig talks about is the clash between Romantic and Classical personalities in life. The basic thought is that some people tend to be more romantic. They like riding motorbikes for the feel of the road rushing under their feet and the wind blowing in their man bun:

“In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”

Meanwhile, Classical people are all about rationality: they like fixing their motorbike with a methodical approach and generally understanding things from a more scientific point of view: 

“The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know.” 

Pirsig thinks that everyone has a bit of both Romantic and Classical in his or her personality, so it’s the conflict within — and the conflict between people strongly disposed to one or the other — that causes a lot of angst in the world. This split is especially magnified in our rapidly changing technological landscape. According to Pirsig, it’s cultivating a balance between the two personality types that will eventually lead to greater levels of happiness. 

There’s still a lot of important stuff from this book I’ve left out, especially about Zen Buddhism and motorcycles. But that’s okay. As Pirsig points out in the introduction, the book “should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles either."

I’d recommend reading the first three chapters of this book. If you find yourself drifting off by then, put it down. If not, you’ll be one of the millions of people around the world who have found Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance deeply satisfying and intriguing. It is for sure a much more accessible and practical introduction to philosophy than trying to wade through Nietzsche, Kant, or Heidegger. [H]

Reviewer's Note: If you do like ZAMM, there is a sequel titled Lila you may also enjoy. I’d also recommend the more recent New York Times Bestseller Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. It's destined to become a Bible to scientific hipsters with man buns and motorcycles everywhere.


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