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July 9, 2013 9:27 AM   Subscribe

They're called Pirsig Pilgrims, the motorcycle enthusiasts who follow the route from Minnesota to California that inspired Robert Pirsig's surprise 1974 chart-busting book, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."
posted by seemoreglass (53 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
This was one of my earliest introduction to philosophy ... :) wasn't very deep but was interesting and made me think a lot.

First time i thought about owning a bike just to do such a trip.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 9:55 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I tried several times to read the book but could never get through it. Ironically it always felt like it wasn't going anywhere.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:58 AM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


I remember a copy of ZMM on my dad's bedside table in his first apartment after my folks split up. I think he must've read it a bunch of times, then he gave me his copy when I was in high school.

Probably like a lot of kids born in the 70s, I spent a lot of time on the back of my dad's motorcycle - my dad claims that I've been to every one of the 48 contiguous states on the back of his 1980 Yamaha Special II 650. I think that part of my relationship with my dad was the long silences of motorcycle road trips - we'd ride 8 hours without talking and with only the wind and the motor for a soundtrack - which led to him and I not talking for years and years. We never took the specific Pirsig Pilgrimage, but I feel like my dad's commitment to back roads and blue highways (his other favorite book) stems from his relationship to the ZMM.

My dad's 72 now, and last summer he was in a pretty serious motorcycle accident. He was okay after he healed up, but it was the first incident through which my dad's mortality was called into question. That's a hard moment, to be sure, but it also made me realize that my dad feels most like himself when he's driving his Harley or Triumph. I haven't been on a motorcycle for any appreciable distance since '94, I bet. That's just one of the many differences between us.

But I read his copy of ZMM a bunch of times so I feel like I get him a little.

As a side note, James Sullivan, who wrote the review of "Zen and Now" also wrote a spectacular biography of James Brown worth checking out.
posted by elmer benson at 9:59 AM on July 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


I read the book many years after it came out and I think that had a bit to do with my reaction to it. I found it interesting but I think the impact was different as the afterword was written after Pirsig's son was killed. It really changed the tone of the whole book in retrospect. Did anyone else find this?

I'm not sure I get what people who didn't see this got out of the book. It really made the whole experience very bleak even though I think it was supposed to be triumphant.
posted by jclarkin at 10:02 AM on July 9, 2013


Looking it up, Pirsig rode a 350cc 1964 Honda SuperHawk. My dad & I took trips on a 650cc Yamaha.

Those bikes are tiny compared to the road and touring bikes I see on the road today.
posted by elmer benson at 10:04 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


The death of his son didnt make the experience bleak for me. It was an event that shook his world but as he said he continued to live, initially by habit, and then by choice.

In fact it fit into the overall story of his life... creating a meaning after a tragic event.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 10:05 AM on July 9, 2013


I read the book when I was 14 which means I got many wrong ideas about things from it that may or may not have been in the book at all. Plato and Socrates for instance are really not at all like what I thought they were, once I finally read them. I still love it as snapshot of a tumultuous time, and as a living depiction of a real philosopher.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:08 AM on July 9, 2013


I've never finished ZMM, but I"m a big fan of Blue Highways. I found BH to have no point--and as such, it gets closer to Zen than ZMM. ZMM, as far as I got, always seemed to be focused on the point, and only allowed diversions within 20 yards of the main road, so to speak.
posted by notsnot at 10:09 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


These days I just think the dude is kind of an neglectful asshole and should get over himself and deal with the situation around him.

Possibly I am unsuited to be a philosopher.
posted by Artw at 10:12 AM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


I quite recently read Zen and Now and enjoyed it quite a bit. I picked up ZMM for the first time shortly after it first came out in paperback, when I was 15 or 16, and it left an indelible mark on me. I still read it again from time to time. I was never tempted to ride his route, though, although I did own a motorcycle in my mid to late twenties, which I used as my sole means of transportation and not just for fun.

I remember hearing about Chris's death and how freaked out I was. Zen and Now addresses the impact pretty well, I think.
posted by janey47 at 10:20 AM on July 9, 2013


There's really only one thing that stuck with me, a long time after reading ZMM: It's the few paragraphs where Pirsig analyzes his argument with a fellow biker about shimming the guy's loose handlebar.

The distinction Pirsig made between the thing that does the job (either a strip cut from a beer can or a shipped-from-Germany clamp shim) and the thing made for the job (not the strip from the beer can) was illuminating. I was raised in an ethos of "use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without" which always seemed to lead to an unpleasant environment of barely-working patched-together things. A dissection of the one in the context of the other -- what is qualitatively good enough, what isn't -- helped me find a workable sensibility between the getting-by mentality and name-brand fetishism. For lack of a better way to put it.

Years later, I had to shim the handlebar on my own bicycle, so I dutifully cut up a strip of soda can (I don't drink soda, so that was actually a kind of happenstance opportunity) and found out that while it works, it doesn't really work that well unless you sand away the printing on one side and lining on the other to ensure bare-metal contact -- otherwise the shim slips and starts working out the side of the clamp. Then again, bicycle handlebars probably get torqued more than motorbike handlebars, so this detail might not have mattered as much for Pirsig's companion.
posted by ardgedee at 10:25 AM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


I read ZMM when I was about 16 or so, and I quite liked it. More than convincing me to agree with it on specifics, though, I think it made me aware of a bunch of things I hadn't previously given serious thought. It made me start thinking philosophically, maybe, and that's a good thing.

But I seem to remember that even then, Pirsig was setting off some crank alarms. And I guess I was right, judging from his statement about Lila:
"I have read many reviews criticising my ideas, but I have yet to see anything that proves me wrong. I'd like to give a prize to the first person who can convince me that my ideas about a metaphysics of quality are wrong."
That's grade-A crank talk right there.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:27 AM on July 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


> Those bikes are tiny compared to the road and touring bikes I see on the road today.

Heh... Peter Beagle's I See By My Outfit was published about ten years earlier than ZMM, and is about a cross-country trip Beagle took by motor scooter.
posted by ardgedee at 10:29 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I first read ZatAoMM shortly after getting a philosophy degree.

Too late.
posted by Zed at 10:30 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


It really changed the tone of the whole book in retrospect. Did anyone else find this?

It changed it a little for me. But the worst part was that he doesn't ever seem to have noticed how badly he treated his son on that trip.
posted by DU at 10:30 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I really didn't like Lila either - its basically Jerk on a Houseboat being a Jerk. That may have tipped me over as regards ZMM.
posted by Artw at 10:31 AM on July 9, 2013


The thing that struck me about Lila when I read it was all his little cross referenced index cards and thinking they would have been so much more cleanly implemented as hypertext, which of course wasn't widely available at the time.
posted by radwolf76 at 10:35 AM on July 9, 2013


I tried several times to read the book but could never get through it. Ironically it always felt like it wasn't going anywhere.

From Wikipedia:
The book sold 5 million copies worldwide. It was originally rejected by 121 publishers, more than any other bestselling book, according to the Guinness Book of Records.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:47 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read ZMM when I was around 20, I think. I read it again some years later after I'd started riding a motorcycle. I paid more attention to the bike parts the second time through.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:10 AM on July 9, 2013


I read the book shortly after it came out. Admittedly, it took me several tries. I never obsessed over it, but I did take bits and pieces on-board that I found useful.

Years later (for reasons having nothing to do with the book) I rode much of the ZAMM trail by bicycle (East to West, like Pirsig & co.). I attained neither philosophical nor spiritual enlightenment, but I did experience some visions while on the quest -- thanks to a bout of extreme dehydration.

I certainly engaged in my share of bicycle maintenance. Little of it involved zen in any direct way, but quite a lot of it required making classical use of available materials (à la beer-can shims) to achieve romantic aims.

You might say that both objectively and subjectively such a trip has a very different qualilty when you go by bicycle.
 
posted by Herodios at 11:12 AM on July 9, 2013


These days I just think the dude is kind of an neglectful asshole and should get over himself and deal with the situation around him.

I haven't read ZMM for years, but I read it several times back in my college and post-college days -- in fact it was an assigned text in a philosophy class, if I recall correctly. Also excitedly picked up and read Lila when it came out.

A while back, I re-watched the Gen X flick Reality Bites, which was released in 1994. Not a bad movie -- I watched it a bunch of times back in the day, as it spoke to the 25-year-old Gen-xer I was. Watching now, however, Ethan Hawke's disaffected, sarcasm-spewing slacker character bugs the fuck out of me.

I have a feeling the same thing would happen if I re-read Pirsig.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:14 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I pick it up every couple of years just to remind myself about some good habits. It appeals to me as a programmer (much like the thousands of half-ass Zen, beginner's mind essays floating around the 'net that are a rite of passage for coders) and appeals to me as someone with a bad temper. Lila didn't appeal to me at all.

the worst part was that he doesn't ever seem to have noticed how badly he treated his son on that trip

It's entirely possible that I invented the idea or missed something, but isn't his son suffering from some mental issues that make it hard to connect? I saw his journey as a "I am all out of ideas so I'm just going to do this and see what happens"— he's just as lost as we are as readers. It's hard for me to judge him without experiencing that problem myself. And I have 0 interest in doing so, thank you very much.
posted by yerfatma at 11:15 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


These days I just think the dude is kind of an neglectful asshole and should get over himself and deal with the situation around him.

I read the book in high school (early 80s) for an English class, and the consensus was that Pirsig was a jerk and we were all glad we didn't have him for a dad.

That same semester we also read some Plato and Socrates and enjoyed them much more.
posted by rtha at 11:21 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've read it several times and still like it even though the criticism are certainly true. He is a jerk and a crank and doesn't treat his family well. He also gets quite a bit of the philosophy wrong. I also wonder what would have happened if he had read Wittgenstein before falling down the mental rabbit hole of essentialism.

I do still like to know how things work and really can't abide too much magical thinking.

Are you posting quality?
posted by srboisvert at 11:24 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


The thing that struck me about Lila when I read it was all his little cross referenced index cards and thinking they would have been so much more cleanly implemented as hypertext, which of course wasn't widely available at the time

I dunno, IIRC it was pretty much slap-bang in the middle of the golden age of HyperCard.
posted by Artw at 11:27 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


And Project Xanadu had been around for 14 years! You know, for vaporware values of "around".
posted by Zed at 11:33 AM on July 9, 2013


I tried several times to read the book but could never get through it. Ironically it always felt like it wasn't going anywhere.

From Wikipedia:
The book sold 5 million copies worldwide. It was originally rejected by 121 publishers, more than any other bestselling book, according to the Guinness Book of Records.


Personally, I haven't noticed any direct correlation between popularity of a book and how much I enjoy it. I will say that the more popular a book or author is, the more likely I am to have heard other people's opinions of it, but that's about all.
posted by dubold at 11:35 AM on July 9, 2013


That same semester we also read some Plato and Socrates and enjoyed them much more.

Socrates did not write anything. You read some Plato and some more Plato.
posted by thelonius at 11:38 AM on July 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


You knew what I meant but I thank you for the pedantry.
posted by rtha at 11:40 AM on July 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


NPR interview from before he sold 5,000,000 copies (although just after the publisher's salesmen had told him they were going all in on the marketing for it.)

Seems like a good example of overnight success at age 46!
posted by bukvich at 11:41 AM on July 9, 2013


You knew what I meant

No, I didn't. Some people are under the impression that they are reading "Socrates" in dialogues like the Apology.
posted by thelonius at 11:45 AM on July 9, 2013


I dunno, IIRC it was pretty much slap-bang in the middle of the golden age of HyperCard.

So it was. I could have sworn the book was older than that. But just because hypercard was at its peak then, it doesn't really satisfy "widely available" in the sense that I meant in my post.
posted by radwolf76 at 11:54 AM on July 9, 2013


No, I didn't.

My apologies. I missed the edit window but please pretend I went back and added "about" before "Socrates."
posted by rtha at 12:06 PM on July 9, 2013


That was more of a historical note than a contradiction: It was reasonably available, but hardly ubiquitous.
posted by Artw at 12:06 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


He's onto something with the Quality line. Put together with Polanyi's 'tacit knowing' and you've got a nice stick to poke the "conciousness is nothing but" crowd with. Season with reality-tunnel and Kuhn and keep stirring. Lila was a nicely done follow-up though a lot more self-conscious than the "gush" of ZMM.

Another important idea from ZMM: gumption-trap. While not always life-threatening, setbacks that drain the energy out of our concerted efforts in life are certainly something we need to learn to dance around if we're ever going to get anything done but fart around!
posted by Twang at 12:22 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


No, I didn't. Some people are under the impression that they are reading "Socrates" in dialogues like the Apology.
Michael Grates: Have I stepped over some line in the sands of coolness with you? Because excuse me if somebody doesn't know the secret handshake with you.

Troy Dyer: There's no secret handshake. There's an IQ prerequisite, but there's no secret handshake.
Sometimes, Being Right isn't as important as it might seem.
posted by Celsius1414 at 12:28 PM on July 9, 2013


hardly ubiquitous

Much better word for the idea I was trying to convey.
posted by radwolf76 at 12:33 PM on July 9, 2013


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tops my list of "books I liked when I was young that I would probably hate now".

Also on that list : The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Stranger in a Strange Land, anything by Tom Robbins.
posted by evil otto at 1:13 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


ZMM had a profound effect on me, which was mostly reversed by reading Lila.
posted by ook at 1:15 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I suspect that Gödel, Escher, Bach would be on that list for me. I was obsessed with it once, but when I tried reading another book of Hofstadter's years later, I found his tone annoyingly smug.
posted by baf at 2:00 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


My apologies as well rtha - I sounded like a jerk
posted by thelonius at 2:18 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another important idea from ZMM: gumption-trap

That's definitely one of the things that stuck with me, possibly because it was instantly relatable: I dreaded the times my Dad and I would be "done" rebuilding a lawn mower or similar only to see one or two small but important-looking pieces behind us on the bench. Now I "know" this builds character. And carrots put hair on your chest.
posted by yerfatma at 2:21 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read it as a teenager too (in the 80s). I remember getting mildly interested in the Quality rumination, but ultimately finding that I reacted to him as an unreliable narrator, unable to perceive when his own mental illness was getting the better of him. I don't think I could make it through the book again today. I have even less patience for that sort of narrative now.

My dad really liked it, which became the basis of many conversations for us. But I think the appeal for his generation who were adults when it came out was that it was the first time that ideas from Zen philosophy found application in the quotidian world of pop culture and the challenges of an adult life. My dad practiced "Zen and the art of" everything for a while - driving. Cooking dinner. Yard work. Today we're surrounded by quasi-Eastern philosophies but to people his age in 1974, this investigation of the nature of reality was in a way the next logical step after Tolkien.

I read Lila, too, and remember almost nothing of that except that at one point he moored his boat near where I was living at the time.
posted by Miko at 2:36 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


The story parts of Lila are a little skeevy, but the philosophy is phenomenally potent. It sets out a much more usable model of the world than ZMM
posted by Sebmojo at 2:52 PM on July 9, 2013


I suspect that Gödel, Escher, Bach would be on that list for me.
Sadly true. I snapped up a copy at a booksale recently and was all excited until I opened it and was all WTF how did this get a Pulitzer. (It didn't help that tucked in the pages was an impossibly pretentious letter from an impossibly pretentious math major to a girl who just from reading his own words I could tell was clearly never going to sleep with him despite his desperate straining to impress...)

Also on that list for me: Illusions, Magister Ludi, The Fountainhead (natch), and about 80% of the F&SF canon.
posted by ook at 4:14 PM on July 9, 2013


A datum: there is a Stanford Encyclopedia Philosophy entry on Ayn Rand and none on Pirsig. My guess before googling is I would find either both or neither and I would have predicted Pirsig would have been there before Rand.
posted by bukvich at 4:17 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


This was one of my earliest introduction to philosophy ...
posted by TheLittlePrince

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tops my list of "books I liked when I was young that I would probably hate now".
posted by evil otto


You have both summed up exactly what I was thinking.

Now get out of my head.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:20 PM on July 9, 2013


For years I had seen and heard about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and that familiar purple mass-market paperback was pretty much a mainstay of the "Philosophy" sections at Waldenbooks and other mall bookstores throughout my teens and twenties. And I dismissed the book because it seemed perfectly titled to appeal to a kind a certain type of pretentious young man who would be perusing the Waldenbooks philosophy section. I mean, it was just too perfect. The title promised philosophy, Eastern religion, counterculture, rebellion, and motorcycles.

And so when I read it years later I was really surprised by how good it was. It is certainly easy to snark about it, but it is a very good, very serious book, and Pirsig does an excellent job of telling a story in a way that embraces and explores serious philosophical ideas in a way that's rarely done so well. I don't remember all that much about the substance of Pirsig's ideas but I remember being really impressed at how well done the book is. And I thought his discussion of the University of Chicago graduate philosophy program was very interesting.

If you are reading this thread and haven't read the book, just read it. It's the type of book that will inevitably have its detractors who want to quibble with how it deals with philosophy. Ignore that stuff, just read it, it's definitely worth reading.
posted by Unified Theory at 5:54 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


As a closet short-haired hippie at heart, I find that that book is right up there with geodesic domes, free love, and communes for proofs of the ugly patriarchal narcissism and love of solutions in search of problems at the core of popular seventies hippiedom. It's a ponderous, eye-rolling book, and mostly a tome on the sad situation of his hapless son, Chris, who was destined to be an appendage to his father's portentous self-interest before being murdered in '79.

Pirsig's Pilgrims ought to build their own Waldens while they're at it, because god forbid anyone actually come up with their own genuine soul-opening adventure instead of just following the photo-op trail of philosophy by numbers and feeling accomplished.

Mind you, when I eventually write my own motorcycle book, it's going to be titled The Tao and the Art of Picking a Motorcycle That Isn't Always Breaking Down.
posted by sonascope at 7:44 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tops my list of "books I liked when I was young that I would probably hate now".

Also on that list : The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Stranger in a Strange Land, anything by Tom Robbins.


I'd add anything by Sartre, Camus or Hesse.

It's not without reason that most of the list above can be guaranteed to be found on the bookshelf of every single pretentious undergrad liberal arts student (myself included, back in the day).

Maybe it's because you can tell yourself you're reading 'superior' *philosophy* (without actually doing any of the hard work) when in reality you're just reading a story, and a badly written one at that.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:51 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


(It didn't help that tucked in the pages was an impossibly pretentious letter from an impossibly pretentious math major to a girl who just from reading his own words I could tell was clearly never going to sleep with him despite his desperate straining to impress...)

When I'm retired & have enough time on my hands to really scour the bookstores in earnest, I want my entire library to be chosen by the hilarity of its marginalia.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:54 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


God, you guys are harsh and dismissive of your questing, younger selves. I think you should look at ZMM as a philoshy primer, a door into philosophy but not really a serious work of philosophy in its own right. And lighten up on Pirsig-narrator, OK? He's a fucked up guy trying to sort his shit out. Not everyone (anyone?) can put their demons completely to one side when kids show up.
posted by kaymac at 4:38 AM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Like many books, ZMM isn't about what it purports to be about. It's actually about how society tried to force a guy to become a normal with the help of therapy but his real self (whom his son recognized from the start) triumphed. This is the real primacy of quality that the theory never quite captures. The tragedy is that this real self is trapped in a narcissistic battle which Pirsig's own theory would recognize was a dead end if it weren't so emotionally important to him.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:55 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


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