Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Retro ReviewFirst, a disclaimer. Robert M . Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not really about motorcycle maintenance. To be sure, the subject does come up, but not in the way you might think.

Indeed, the book covers a lot of ground both literally and figuratively as Pirsig relates a trip west from Minnesota to the west coast on a motorcycle with his son, Chris.

Within that trip, there is a long monologue—a Chautauqua—about issues Pirsig carries with him from the past, ranging from personal and family issues to career to man’s relationship with technology, philosophy, quality—as defined in a number of contexts—and defining, or re-defining himself.

The narrative jumps back and forth between travelogue and lecture. I will admit to feeling at times that the book would have been twice as good if it had been half as long. But in the process of examining the topics he ranges over, Pirsig does create a reading experience that is almost like reading more than one book at once, which not all readers may see as a good thing.

The subject of motorcycle maintenance comes up at a couple of points in the story as roadside maintenance in the form of oil changes, chain adjustments, setting valves and so forth become the focus. But, if you’re hoping for an in-depth, illustrated discussion of how to do these things on a specific motorcycle model, you will be disappointed. Instead, Pirsig offers up a fascinating discussion of the factors that lead people foul up motorcycle maintenance and repair. “Gumption traps” he calls them.

“As far as I can see there are two main types of gumption traps. The first type are those in which you’re thrown off the Quality track by conditions that arise from external circumstances, and I call these “setbacks.” The second type are traps in which you’re thrown off the Quality track by conditions that are primarily within yourself. These I don’t have any generic name for—“hang-ups,” I suppose,” he says as he leads into a lengthy description of how we can set ourselves up for failure when working on a motorcycle.

Pirsig explains that things like out-of-sequence-reassembly, intermittent failure, unexpected parts needed and the got-the-wrong-part situation are all gumption traps that can suck the oxygen out of a project—and the DIY mechanic.

Then reactions to the situation like anxiety, boredom and impatience are examined in some detail and what to do about them. So, when it comes to motorcycle maintenance, Pirsig focuses much more on what may be going on in your head during motorcycle maintenance than on what to do and how to do it on the bike itself.

The parts of the book describing the motorcycle journey with his son Chris are engaging and vivid enough to help take you along and may well link their odyssey to some you have taken. But some of the parts of the narrative that plumb the depths of Pirsig’s philosophy may bring the journey grinding to a stop like an overheated engine. Here’s an example:
“Although there’s no logical objection to a metaphysical trinity, a three-headed reality, such trinities are not common or popular. The metaphysician normally seeks either monism, such as God, which explains the nature of the world as a manifestation of one single thing, or he seeks a dualism, such as mind-matter, which explains it as two things, or he leaves it as a pluralism, which explains it as a manifestation of an indefinite number of things.”

If you can stick with Pirsig through those types of passages, or better yet, you can relate and absorb them, the rest of Pirsig’s Chautauqua ends up being a very good read—just don’t go looking for tune-up tips in it.

Book Data:

  • Title: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
  • Author: Robert M. Pirsig
  • Published: 1974.
  • Publisher: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 105 Madison Ave., New York, NY, 10016
  • ISBN: 0-553-14852-4

Note to readers: many of the books that we’ll feature in Rider’s Library may be out of print and some may be difficult to find. That could be half the fun. The Internet should make the search relatively easy but ironically, none of the books currently scheduled for eventual retro-review for the Rider’s Library section were found with the help of the Internet. They all were found at book stores, used book stores, antique shops, motorcycle shops, yard sales and so on.