A little while ago I was having coffee with a new friend, the writer of the very entertaining personal-adventure blog Semi-Rad. We were talking about good travel writing, and he mentions Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which happened to be in my bag that day. When talking about personal journeys, self-discovery, or philosophy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a book that always comes up for a certain band of readers. I had liked it in high school, but decided to see what makes it tick when a free copy showed up at work.
The story’s skeleton is the description of a man who takes his son on a cross-country road trip . From this framework, the narrator delves into his past and the questions of philosophy that led to his mental break down. It moves along at a good clip for a text that is heavy in pedagogical asides due in part to a straightforward narration and language (Pirsig’s day job was writing instruction manuals).
The main issue the narrator focuses on is the definition of quality. To me this is simply production focused on design, craftsmanship, and durability as opposed to focusing on producing mass quantities where attention is sacrificed for speed. For Pirsig’s narrator, there is much more to this question as it was the cause of his a mental break down. He spends enough time on the question it is safe to assume it is of importance to Pirsig, but in what form?
Clearly a book that sells five million copies has to be of high quality. It may not be literary or poetic, it may only be entertaining, but it must do that well and strike a strong chord with its readers. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not literary, and it is not entertaining as a thriller is. It is pedagogical. It breaks the world into two points of view: the romantic, which focuses on the beauty of the surface or the whole, and the classical, which is more concerned with the parts and how things work under the surface.
So how does Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance work? While there is a lot of character history, there is not the creation of empathetic, characters. The narrator feels the most solid, but there is little emotional connection to the reader. There is setting and atmosphere, but it is not emotive. What drives the reader is the interest in the ideas, Pirsig’s “novel” approach of romantic and classical perspectives. The reader may not feel an emotional connection with the character, but probably identifies with his dissatisfaction in modern society and his desire for a perspective on life that is more subtle and varied. It is this desire that causes the reader to follow Pirsig down his pedagogical rabbit holes, which are detailed and well explained but would not garner the same attention if instead of truth Pirzig sought a more efficient carburetor.