Ride to Think: The Lonely Journey of Robert M. Pirsig

Robert Maynard Pirsig, author of the great 1974 novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died on April 24, 2017 at the age of 88. This novel was a cornerstone of the late Beat/Hippie literary era, and it continues to touch the hearts of countless readers all over the world.

Though this novel’s fetching title makes a big first impression, it’s about much more than Buddhist philosophy and combustion engines. As a philosophical novel, it brushes quickly past Eastern philosophy to dive deep into the classics of ancient Greece, and despite all this it’s really a novel about parenthood, and about the challenge of staying centered and sane amidst the trials and challenges of everyday American life.

Most of all, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a personal, autobiographical story about a father worrying about how to raise his son. It’s mainly because the novel works so effectively on this raw emotional ground — of course, its clever title and zeitgest-y Summer of Love vibe helps too — that it remains so widely loved by so many readers today.

But there’s an agonizing, terrible twist to the story Robert Pirsig tells about a cross-country motorcycle trip with his tween son Chris, a trip designed to strengthen a father/son bond that the narrator/novelist knew would always be precarious and hazardous due to his own psychological instability. The narrator/novelist took his curious, pleasant and occasionally irritable son on a cross-country trip in order to give him a grounding in motion and reality, and a cosmic sense of the possibilities of life. Robert Pirsig was apparently a pretty good father, and young Chris (his real name as well as his name in the book) was turning out fine by the time the novel was published in 1974, several years after the ride chronicled in the book.

But, five years after that, just before Chris Pirsig turned 23, he was murdered in a random robbery in San Francisco. In a harrowing irony that must have haunted this Buddhist-minded father for the rest of his life, this senseless mugging and murder took place outside a Zen center that both father and son frequented often, though at this time the son was visiting alone.

This after-story is far crueler and sadder than anything that happens in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence, a lovely tale composed with a quiet tone and an underlying tension that often happily yields to a simply joyful celebration of life on the road. The narrator spends much of the book worrying about his son, but he is not worried that his son will be suddenly stabbed by a total stranger on a city street. He is absolutely obsessed, though, with the fear that he himself will fail to be a good father to his own son. He is specifically worried that his son may have inherited his own tendency towards mental illness.

He teaches Chris how to fix motorcycles and plot journeys on road maps and sleep in tents because he hopes these life lessons will yield the kind of holistic sense of reality that he wishes he could have attained at an earlier age himself. He thinks it might save the growing boy from a future of broken marriages, failed careers, mental hospitals and electroshock therapy.

It’s because Robert Pirsig lived through these trials himself before writing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence that it’s such a serious and valuable book. It was obviously inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (which presents two buddies on a ride, rather than a father and a son, but aims for the same balm of enlightenment). It stands today as a period piece alongside the experimental/”kooky” work of other hippie-era counterculture novelists like Ken Kesey, Richard Farina, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins.

But it’s a mistake to dismiss the book for its immersion in a singular era (and, actually, it’s a mistake to dismiss the novels of Kesey, Farina, Brautigan, Vonnegut and Robbins for the same reason too). All of these writers took their craft seriously, and most of them dealt with the looming specter of mental illness as well. But Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is unique for its sober and sensible tone, its devotion to serious analytic thought, and its complete lack of debauchery. The mind-altering substance most vividly described in the book is coffee, which Pirsig’s narrator recommends as essential for any amateur motorcycle mechanic dealing with a difficult problem such as a broken gear chain.

Zen and … is undeniably a wordy, brainy book, especially since it chronicles the author’s collision with the University of Chicago’s famed Philosophy department, where the notable professor Mortimer Adler championed an aggressively rational and Aristotlean approach to the works of Plato, and where Pirsig struggled badly as a grad student. The parts of the book that do not involve roads and motorcycles show the narrator battling a professor who wishes to humble and humiliate his contributions to class discussions. Pirsig’s earnest student narrator wanted to bask in the spiritual anarchy of Plato’s mind-spinning Socratic dialogues, and refuses to accept his teacher’s direction. He feels himself stopped in his tracks by the basic uncertainty of the human mind, and insists (rather childishly, some Aristotlean philosophers might argue) that it is impossible to proceed with philosophy once one realizes that no hypothesis can ever be proven, and that an infinite number of hypotheses will always exist to answer any question. He comes to see his professor as an enemy, and indeed this professor is the only villain in the book.

Pirsig performs an artful feint in tying his vision of an epistemological crisis to Zen Buddhism, since the book’s direct philosophical lineage is clearly grounded in classic Greek philosophy, and aligns with the critiques of Platonic thought laid out by existentialist philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre. In Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre’s narrator apprehends the existential emptiness of reality, and becomes physically sick. Robert Pirsig’s narrator apprehends the same thing, but eventually finds salvation in motorcycle engineering. Not a bad moral lesson, nor a shabby intellectual reach, for a mere “hippie novel” from the wacky/crazy 1970s.

The Zen-tinged title does point, though, to the wide cosmic sense of openness that Pirsig yearns for throughout the book. Indeed the novel might never have caught on (I might not have picked it up myself once, as an eager pre-teen with a library card) if it did not have this great title, which alludes to an earlier East/West crossover, Zen in the Art of Archery by the German Buddhist scholar Eugen Herrigel. It’s worth wondering if Pirsig thought up the book’s title first, and then challenged himself to write a novel good enough to earn it. If so, it was a tough challenge and he succeeded.

Zen and … is far from a perfect book, and in my opinion its biggest failure is its inability to connect the philosophical/existential crisis described in the University of Chicago classroom scenes with the narrator’s growing mental illness. We watch the narrator descend into dysfunction, in scenes from a bleak past, but the main clues we are given as to the cause involve his ballooning philosophical inquiries. Are we really meant to believe that a sublime appreciation of Plato’s Gorgias and Republic drove a grad student mad? Is there really any causal relationship between an eager reader’s intellectual apprehension of uncertainty and that same reader’s actual descent into mental illness?

There may be, but the book fails to make this connection clear. Nietzsche did go mad, but Kierkegaard and Sartre did not, and the uncertainty of knowledge is usually more likely a metaphor for mental illness than an actual root cause. The idea that a proper philosophy education may lead an innocent soul to bedlam and shock therapy is a stretch. It seems more likely that any person may apprehend the total crisis of western philosophy, and that any person may suffer from mental illness, but that there is actually no clear causality between the two.

This is an argument that seems to deflate Pirsig’s novel just a little bit, though it doesn’t harm the book’s charm or relevance or appeal at all. We can forgive stretchy metaphors when the prose is as good as this scene, in which our hero visits a mechanic in a repair shop to fix a problem he can’t fix himself.

When I show it to him he nods and slowly goes over and sets the regulators for his gas torch. Here he looks at the tip and selects another one. Absolutely no hurry. He picks up a steel filter rod and I wonder if he’s actually going to try to weld that thin metal. Sheet metal I don’t weld. I braze it with a brass rod. When I try to weld it I punch holes in it and then have to patch them up with huge blobs of filler rod. “Aren’t you going to braze it?” I ask.

“No,” he says. Talkative fellow.

He sparks the torch and sets a tiny little blue flame and then, it’s hard to describe, actually dances the torch and the rod in separate little rhythms over the thin sheet metal, the whole spot a uniform luminous orange yellow, dropping the torch and filler rod down at the exact right moment and then removing them. No holes. You can hardly see the weld. “That’s beautiful,” I say.

“One dollar,” he says, without smiling. Then I catch a funny quizzical look within his glance. Does he wonder if he’s overcharged? No, something else … lonely, same as the waitress. Probably he thinks I’m bullshitting him. Who appreciates work like this anymore?

Pirsig’s book holds a place not only among the great hippie novels of its era but also among the era’s notable novels about mental illness and fear of looming insanity, such as Hannah Green’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as well as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by, again, Ken Kesey. Zen is a delicate, compassionate portrait of a fragmented mind, and a hopeful, soothing chronicle of a program for recovery and prevention.

Of course, it is more than a quaint and academic problem that human existence is a never-ending crisis of epistemology. This is the root of the absurd reality that we humans are always prone to misinformation and stunted thought, and that we often don’t know how to think or who to believe. It’s galling to realize that the humane and spiritually conscious Robert Pirsig’s last year of life was mired within the ugly muck of a new American crisis of epistemology. This crisis sees Pirsig’s beloved America fallen into a state of willful stupidity, led by a malicious liar who urges us to abandon our own common sense and descend to the low moral level of a hate-filled mob. It’s truly enraging that a great word-painter of affectionate Americana like Robert Pirsig had to live his last months of life under the cloud of the absurdly sinister administration of fake-President Trump: our whole nation’s descent into mental illness.

But Pirsig is accustomed to crises of epistemology. In a late afterword to his great novel, written 25 years after its initial publication, the novelist describes how a recent rereading of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw helped him understand his own novel in a new way. Like the heroine of James’s perceptive psychological “ghost story”, Pirsig’s hero is not actually as innocent as he appears to be. And Pirsig’s admission that he was still struggling to understand his own novel years after it was published proves how humble and eager his sharp mind always was.

Pirsig’s later writings about his best book are well worth reading, though I have to admit that I never took the time to read his second novel, an apparent sequel to Zen and … called Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. It may be a great book, but it did not seem to jump off the shelves the way his first book did, and I never observed much of a groundswell of support for the book. In later writings, Pirsig expressed disappointment that many readers of his first novel failed to pick up his second. Well, maybe I’ll give it another shot this year.

Lila was Pirsig’s only other novel, though, and I’m guessing it was his beloved son’s death that knocked Robert Pirsig off the fast lane as a writer of popular books. He also appears to completely lack the kind of outsized ego that inspires many other novelists to keep putting out new stuff. Robert Pirsig didn’t seem to care whether or not anybody thought he was still in the game, and instead appears to have lived a quiet, contemplative life off the fashionably literary grid.

Once, humorously dismissing the intellectual pretensions of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence, he said this:

It 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.

Actually, it’s got just enough facts about both, but we don’t read novels for facts. Robert Pirsig’s classic book brings us the great American road, with two lonely figures riding in — one parent and one child, and the love that keeps their wheels spinning forward.

38 Responses

  1. A beautiful and loving
    A beautiful and loving commentary on a great book. Since I’ve lived with bipolar depression all my life, Pirsig’s story is especially meaningful. I remember the drive to understand, to seek out life’s answers, often coming face to face with the bleakness that I thought represented the bare bones, the stark reality of life. I know now that the story that depression spins in front of my very eyes is a false one, incomplete and monochromatic. Just trying to read “Crime and Punishment” would be enough to trigger my depression though there is no causality between the literature and my view of life. Seeing the emptiness of what we can know, and what we cannot certainly in my case triggered an existential crisis. My search for meaning in philosophy and religion was driven by internal conflict, so I can understand what Pirsig must have gone through in his own life. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance may be one of the most touching and personally relevant books I’ve ever read. Thanks for a great read!

  2. All i got out of my first
    All i got out of my first reading of ZATAOMM really was a desire to get a motorcycle and that the guy seemed hung up on quality and self sufficiency but I do not know how he would make his own spark plugs, spark plug cables and all the other cables, tires et al.
    I did get a bike, several, and rode coast to coast and almost all the way from Canada to Mexico and suffered my first existential crisis when I was making a left on a super-busy street in heavy traffic and looked and turned and when i looked again saw this Ford Bronco an arm’s length from me. I hit the street so hard that I couldn’t move and saw cars coming towards me and thought for sure I was going to get run over.

  3. I am a Pirsig fan, also. Zen
    I am a Pirsig fan, also. Zen and the Art blew my mind when I first read it back in high school some 30 years ago. I still have that same well-thumbed, dog-eared and highlighted copy- I will always treasure it. I recently picked up a copy of Lila to read at a library book sale ironically only a week or so before he passed on. I am tempted to reread Zen again before I transition to Lila. Thank you, Robert Pirsig as you journey on into the afterlife, whatever that may hold for you, or for any of us.

  4. What do you mean by “clever
    What do you mean by “clever title or zeitgest-y Summer of Love vibe”? To me, sounds like a slam against a time period in which this novel took hold. So, why the slam?

  5. Hi Marion – well, I am
    Hi Marion – well, I am characterizing the time period of the 1960s/1970s, but certainly not slamming it. I think it’s pretty clear from this article (and many other articles on this website) that I’m very fond of this period, isn’t it? Literature, art, music, civil rights, pacifism … the hippie era or Summer of Love era was an era of creative greatness and originality. I don’t see why anyone would perceive that I am slamming either the era or the book.

  6. The death of Chris Persig at
    The death of Chris Pirsig at age 23 is very sad. Arguably there is a law, like Murphy’s Law, which requires that authors like Pirsig who achieve great writing must suffer terrible punishment—akin to the meme “no good deed can go unpunished.” Think of Arthur Miller with the birth of a mentally challenged son after all his famous writings were done, Ernest Hemingway whose life became tormented to such an extent he committed suicide at age 61, Sylvia Plath’s and Nietsche’s insanity, Coleridge’s opium addiction, etc.

    Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorn Clemens) might be cited by some as a happy writer, but Wikipedia has these downer facts:

    He married Olivia Langdon in February 1870. Their first child, Langdon Clemens, was born in November 1870 but was premature. Olivia contracted typhoid fever and became very ill, her condition requiring much care for the rest of her life. Langdon died of diphtheria at the age of 19 months. The Clemens had three daughters: Susy (1872–1896), Clara (1874–1962), and Jean (1880–1909)—one of four children attaining an age beyond 29. Twain passed through a period of deep depression that began in 1896 when Susy died of meningitis. Olivia’s death in 1904 and Jean’s on December 24, 1909 deepened his gloom. On May 20, 1909, his close friend Henry Rogers died suddenly. Twain died on April 21, 1910, not four months after Jean.

    Joan Didion received a great deal of recognition for The Year of Magical Thinking, which was awarded the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005. Documenting the grief she experienced following the sudden death of her husband, the book’s publication date was narrowly preceded by the death of Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne.

    To study writers’ lives might lead to the idea that the most spot-on metaphor for life is Kafka’s “Penal Colony.” At times, however—as the poet Rumi insisted—other metaphors like “Gift Shop,” “Amusement Park,” and “Purgatory” befit our moodish muddling through.

  7. I spent quite a lot of time
    I spent quite a lot of time at the Blue Heron Cafe, which was paid for, I think, with money from proceeds from ZATAOMM and run/owned by Pirsig’s ex, Nancy James, in the late ’70s, early ’80s. I was aware of the cafe’s connection to the book at the time but the cafe’s draw, for me, was a waitress who was a dead ringer for(Annie-Hall-era) Carol Kane and who wore her hair in Swiss Miss braids and suffered from anosmia. I was shocked to discover, years later, that Nancy and Robert’s poor son Chris was murdered, in ’79 (I would have been in the cafe quite often that year; I even had a brief Art exhibit there)… I detected no grief or drama on the premises. Which is either a testament to the power of their Zen commitment or an index of my youthful cluelessness.

    Literally everyone I knew, in those days, owned a paperback copy of ZATAOMM (along with a Seth book, a Joan Armatrading album, a yogurt-culturing kit and a batik garment or two from a West Bank boutique). Pirsig’s death was a curtain closing on an era that out-lasted the ’60s by quite a stretch and overlapped the New Wave ’80s (which was the stop on the culture train I got out at): the era not of The Hippies, so much as The Yuppie Mystics.

  8. Odd article. When I read this
    Odd article. When I read this book I was amazed that this guy in the tradition of Platonic philosophy, basically proves the existence of something else… God even. He calls it Quality, a word not even in this article. Quality becomes the source, the meaning and the reason of interaction and of existence. As a young person into the whole hippie thing, I didn’t see this book as being beat nor hippie, but scholastic and traditional. Go figure.

  9. Chris, it’s definitely valid
    Chris, it’s definitely valid to read this book outside of the context of the era in which it was published. For me – well, I was a kid during the 1970s, and the book brings back many memories of that era. That’s why I wrote this article in this way. But that’s not to suggest that the book isn’t timeless, and I’m glad you’re pointing out how timeless it actually is. May it be read forever, in every decade to come!

  10. I first read this book when I
    I first read this book when I was a teenager, you’re right the title seemed for sure catchy clever and engaging as it does to me now thirty odd years later (I’ve just finished re-reading it). I’m not sure I “got” it the first time around but I really got it this time (whatever that means – a deeper understanding and appreciation of the artfullness and scholarship of the novel and it’s journey on several planes or themes which resonated with my own personal understanding of philosophy and how I choose to live my life. Thanks for your review which I also enjoyed, it’s always enlightening to compare what one thinks to what others thought/made of such works. I just wanted to say in defense of the book regarding your criticism that the author/narrator’s described descent into mental illness (due to possibly excessive or exclusive ongoing analysis of existential issues – or whatever you want to call it) is perhaps one factor but also the author does note other variables, i.e. that he was working, teaching creative writing at the same time he was struggling through this philosophical material (apparently unsupported by his professors/teachers) and alongside working through the night, he was not getting adequate sleep or nutrition which over an extended time frame in itself is a sure fire route into mental health (and physical health) problems. Cheers,D

  11. Lila is the best book I ever
    Lila is the best book I ever read
    Finally I can say that a book changed my life

  12. 23 years ago in sophomore
    23 years ago in sophomore English my teacher had the class read this book. It changed my life. I’ve read it about three to four times since. I have had a couple authors sign their books for me. I am grief stricken I didn’t track down Mr. Pirsig sooner. I live in Montana and have been to MSU where Robert taught, and met people who met Mr. Pirsig. I will now reread this masterpiece, this culture bearer again, more slowly this time, sipping it like a warm tea. Pondering quality. Pursuing quality in all my affairs. This book has made all the difference in my life. With all the love a man can convey, thank you Robert M. Pirsig for all you did for humanity.
    P.S. Printing this webpage. Putting it on my wall at work.

  13. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance blew me away. Lila was even better.

  14. Fascinating information you
    Fascinating information you provide. Thank you.
    I believe the article could be enhanced once the Author reads Lila and realises that Pirsig has introduced a whole new philosophy to the World… The Metaphysics of Quality or MOQ.
    It is revolutionary in that it re-introduces Quality/Value/Morals to a Scientific/Technological World bereft of them.
    No longer is Truth at the top of the pile, but Quality supplants it, and explains the East/West Art/technology etc divide.

  15. As a newly christened Zen
    As a newly christened Zen student I read it in 1974. And reread it a few times. The ending was confusing for me — although the gist of was not — namely — “It’s going to be alright.”

    But over the years, to this very day, I love to pick up the book for a read in the Spring — just as Winter is surrendering to new beginnings. And for the past decade of so, I tend to mostly focus of his incredibly vivid, graphic, enthralling detailed descriptions of the ride across the mid-west — the flowers, the landscape changes along the way, the people, the flora and fauna — his incredible Here & Now situational awareness of the natural environment he is passing through.

    In 2017 I first discovered the NPR radio interview of Pirsig done in 1974. And in that interview, as in the book, Pirsig confirmed that my favorite parts now — the scenic ride — are the heart and soul of the book in a way — because it’s about “the journey” — NOT the destination. I keep wanting to make that same Beginner’s Mind, fresh, eyes-wide-open panoramic motorbike journey across the mid-west — over and over again.

    But the part that intrigued me the most when I first read it in 1974, was the way he had this natural zeal to “fix things” and understand how they worked and how to keep them working optimally. It was just like me — a comfort zone of self-sufficiency. A relentless drippping faucet is not just a “task not done” — it’s a consciousness not awakened — an awareness dulled by a false sense of futility. What a great book it has been all these years.

  16. You give a good breakdown of
    You give a good breakdown of the novel and your writing is very intelligent, but you missed one of the key aspects of the book. What you refer to as mental breakdown or mental illness was in fact Samadhi or enlightenment. Maybe it wasn’t? However this possibility is explicitly referred to in the novel and you shouldn’t just leave it out, it’s important, you can’t just dismiss one of the key themes of the book by saying some shit about fragmented mind and looming insanity. It’s like breaking down WWII by saying some shit burned down and some other shit got destroyed somewhere by someone, Amen. The fact that you can bring a person back from Nirvana using electroshock as is alluded to by Pirsig…that idea itself is fascinating. Also, Pirsig was trying to bridge philosophies of East and West, of mystical spirituality(read: Buddhism) vs materialist western science — all you saw was a travelogue by dad and son and some heady crap about Plato, Zen, fixing bikes and mental illness? You observe that Pirsig had no ego to keep pumping out novels like most writers: after enlightenment ego and personal motives dissolve — good job backing up the possibility of Pirsig as Boddhisattva. Also, Lila is a timeless masterpiece and reads like poetry compared to Zen.

  17. Thanks for the feedback, John
    Thanks for the feedback, John. That’s a very good point that the “breakdown” may have been intended to be understood as samadhi or enlightenment. You are correct that I overlooked these hints in this book, though of course I did understand that the so-called breakdown was both a positive and negative force in his life. Perhaps I’ll see more of this aspect when and if I read this book again. Anyway, thanks for adding your perspective – this is what comments are good for!

  18. What a fine article and good
    What a fine article and good complementary comments too. I’ll never forget the week holiday I had that started by going into my favourite bookstore where my favourite bookseller handed me a couple of hardbacks saying “You’ll like these.”

    I spent most of that week devouring Zen and the Art along with Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death and the remaining time walking around the house babbling deep inanities. Whew!

    I’ve never been the same since… but then I never really was.

  19. “Action and suffering, which
    “Action and suffering, which together make up our lives, are a whole; they are one. A child suffers its begetting, it suffers its birth, its weaning; it suffers here and suffers there until in the end it suffers death. But all the good in a man, for which he is praised or loved, is merely good suffering, the right kind, the living kind of suffering, a suffering to the full. The ability to suffer well is more than half of life — indeed, it is all life.” ~ Hermann Hesse

  20. I don’t think there is a
    I don’t think there is a connection between literary achievement followed by personal tragedy. I’ve read my hometown newspaper for decades. I always read the stories about crime and punishment and the features about families dealing with devastating illnesses that are unusual enough to be newsworthy. Then there are the people I know who suffer from diseases that are common and not newsworthy. Suffering is universal and none of us get through life avoiding it. The writers you mention are famous so we know what happens to them. I recommend Why Religion? by Elaine Pagel if you want to explore death and mourning through a personal narrative.

  21. EXCELLENCE as an aspiration.
    EXCELLENCE as an aspiration. And an openness to divine intervention. Both Zen and Lila admit us into a personal view of truth and reality which we can appreciate and react upon. How many of us can hope for such a legacy? Good on Robert Persig!

  22. If you believe Science we are
    If you believe Science we are suspended in a mostly dark, mostly cold Universe, here by the Grace of Probability and life has no meaning and you might as well do exactly what you want because one day the Universe will flat-line according to the second law of thermodynamics.

    Robert M Pirsig gave us an alternative where an entity can exist without a particle being involved and Dynamic Quality (a placeholder name for something that can’t be defined) is the driving force behind everything. The whole shooting match is Moral… with a structure from the bottom up of Inorganic, Biological, Social, Intellectual.

    An idea in the Intellectual level can destroy a religion in the Social level.

    Dynamic Quality pervades everything and is acting on everything giving us Cosmological Evolution, not just evolution at the biological level.

    A religion in the Social level, may have dynamic components such as the desire for gay and female priests and static components such as the desire for the old ways and rituals and only male priests.

    The tension between the two is essential for its survival. Too much dynamic and it will die. Too much static and it will die.

  23. Hi Marc,

    I’ve been reading your website for the past four hours, just having found it and it’s something of a revelation to me. So much of the literary territory upon which you draw has informed my own development. When you mention Nausea, I recall that I just pulled out a piece I wrote decades ago called, “Roquentin was Wrong,” referring to Nausea’s main character. We were reading the book in a college English class, and just days later in a near-drowning experience, I came encountered a terrifyingly real and magnificent version of a reality which totally humbled me for my cavalier adoption of the existential perspective of meaninglessness.

    I read with interest your discussion of Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I read back in 1974 when it first came out, at a time when in no way did I feel my mental sanity was assured. The strange quality of Pirsig’s mind intrigued me and somewhat frightened me on behalf of my own state. That he could write an entire novel indicated such amazing mental genius and clarity of focus. At that time I was doing my best to put together a small volume of poems. It’s taken me most of these forty-seven years since to realize I couldn’t finish anything I wrote back then because my world had been so turned upside down by the raucous ride of the Sixties that it would take decades for me to attain the clarity to conclusively hold forth on any topic.

    I’m reading your memoir with fascination. I would like to send you a copy of “Roquentin was Wrong;” however I don’t know if you are currently reading others’ writing these days.

  24. Hi Carol Lee – nice to meet you, and thanks for the compliments! Yes, even though I’m no longer reviewing books here, I would like to get a copy of “Roquentin Was Wrong”. Nice title. My mailing address is:

    Marc Eliot Stein
    PO Box 751246
    Forest Hills NY 11375

  25. I will definitely send you a copy–it’s an essay-type piece, not a book! As I look it over, I see it segues into my first and only Acid experience. All of a piece.
    Am exploring your World Beyond War site with interest–reflecting back to the Weapons Freeze Movements of the ’80s. Time for a loud voice again.

  26. Marc, hello neighbor. I’d like to meet with you sometime.

    My personal experience with Pirsig’s book has spanned years , as I read from it (and others) whenever my sense about the fragility of this life is awakened by events that shake the ground around my morality.
    My physical failure in 2016 resulting in a heart transplant, during which I experienced something, and continue to have thoughts that I’m incapable to describe, has brought an enlightenment that I would write about, if I could, as well as Mr. Pirsig.

  27. Having suffered a disturbed mental period in my life, all be it many years ago, I connected with his first book which I read three times taking different directions each time.
    I am trying to connect with Lila but have only read it once so hopefully re-reading it will be more inspirational
    A great unassuming writer who I wish had written more.

  28. I can only recommend reading “Lila” after “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. I remember reading “Zen…” many years ago and thinking I had understood it to some degree. I tried to follow up with “Lila” back then and failed miserably. I just could not understand that book and gave up after having read, maybe, a third of it.
    I am much older now and read both books again. I could not quite understand why I had given up on “Lila” the first time. Maybe the story is a little less gripping than in “Zen”, but it’s a good book and — in terms of Pirsig’s philosophical system — goes a lot further.
    I am looking for a Pirsig biography now, but there does not seem to be one around.

  29. Lila should be read. I was amazed at how little acclaim it received, beyond the brilliant person who insisted I read it. There are some philosophical gems in there. 20 years after I read Zen.. It felt like it might be driving home points which were nuanced in Zen.. There were points in Zen.. where it felt like Persig took us in a journey around a certain point before nailing it. I remember putting the book down at those points and sometimes not picking it back up for a year and a half. A couple times I remember thinking it would be shallow to read on without reflecting for some time.
    Maybe Zen.. prepped me for Lila, maybe I would have appreciated it as a stand alone book. Lila introduced these great ways to look at everything: good and bad, dynamic, vs static good, metaphysics of quality… I loved Lila and it has stuck with me. It might have changed my outlook more than Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.

  30. Finally at a place in my Life that I can enjoy reading this book. There is so many parts of this book I can relate to. Having grown up going on on the back of a motorcycle with my dad and spending a lot of time in the garage while he rebuilt them to owning my own motorcycle. Then to becoming a machinist and then a RN. Anyway not yet halfway through but enjoying it.

    A very distant relative,
    Tim Pirsig

  31. Thanks to all for comments on this article. Dear Tim Pirsig, I’d love to hear more about your family! Can you tell us more about yourself and this book’s relationship to you?

  32. Gumption trap.
    I didn’t do the book justice in my teen age reading, but that coinage stuck.
    A fine article that gathered good comments!
    Cassidy brought me here. Adding Lila to my list.

  33. What ZATAOMM gave me is the idea of looking. Almost 50 years later I am still looking and finding. While I didn’t travel the way Pirsig and Castaneda did, I explored, met, and corrected myself.

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