Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — Robert Pirsig

zenA man is on a motorcycle road trip with his son and a couple of friends. As they travel through roads and towns across the USA, he pontificates about life, philosophy, and yes, motorcycle maintenance. He doesn’t say a lot about Zen, actually, but what he does say fits in well with the rest of his ideas. He’s trying to develop a train of thought that he thinks might be able to solve the malaise affecting the affluent West in these decadent times.

As the narrator talks more about his own history, it becomes clearer where his ideas came from and how bound up they are to his personal life. You can tell that there are some troubles below the surface and these build tension throughout the story leading to… well, the end of the story, which was reasonably satisfying.

The philosophical discussions were interesting to me. A lot of it works as an opinionated primer to the history of Western philosophy, with a smattering of Eastern thrown in too. The logician in me was unhappy with the validity of some of the arguments presented, but that always happens when reading philosophy. The philosophy forms a background to an analysis of society’s current technology-driven malaise (sound familiar?), which leads to ideas about how we can fix it. Mindfulness is presented as an antidote to the phoniness of modern life, with motorcycle maintenance providing one of many examples. Travelling through small-town USA, the narrator meets various old characters that exemplify this mindfulness and give the book a nostalgic air.

I don’t feel the book has dated (much), despite being written 40 years ago. It’s reassuring to remember that the problems we face today are not much different from those of 40 years ago. Or maybe it’s a bit depressing. Actually, given how popular this book was in the ’70s, I would have expected more people to have absorbed its ideas so that things would be better by now. This book will give you hope that society might be able to move on to a better path, if only enough people think clearly about where we came from and where we’re going. And despite the disclaimer in the preface, you’ll also learn a lot about motorcycles,

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