Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig published this book in 1974. The first time I tried to read it, I was around 21-22 and didn’t get it. The second time (26 years old?), I finished it, but I don’t think it really “sank in” as all I remember was that it was rough going. This time around, I am 53, and it made more sense.

(It also made more sense to me because Pirsig is writing from the perspective of a motorcyclist and “retired” academic — two areas that I only started to understand in my mid 30s, i.e., after doing grad school and owning a Honda 250.)

This is not a book for young people, as its narratives (or philosophical discussions) concern growing up, life decisions, and learning to find your place accept your reality — topics that make more sense as you get older and have more experiences to compare with Pirsig’s thoughts as he and his son (around 10 years old) ride a motorcycle from the middle of the US to California.

The plot of the book (spoilers!) combines three threads: A road trip with a son who was traumatized by his father’s insanity (it’s not until well into the book that Pirsig clearly says that another character — Phaedrus, who went crazy in his quest to understand quality — was his earlier self); a zen guide to taking one’s time to understand the ebb and flow of a motorcycle as machine; and a philosophical quest to understand why he went crazy. This structure worked for me because any single thread would be too intense (or trivial) without the other threads to add context and help the reader absorb the philosophical stuff, which I didn’t always get.

Before I get to some more details on what I enjoyed about the book, I do want to point out how unusual this book is, in terms of genres. Pirsig’s manuscript was rejected by numerous publishers (typical problem, since they are always trying to figure out marketing) before one editor gave him a green light — not just to consider the manuscript, but also to develop the book (it took 6 years). That was another age.


  1. A motorcycle exposes you to your surroundings in an entirely different way than a car (qua capsule).
  2. Maintenance is not just following steps 1-23; it’s awareness and care.
  3. Some people are convinced that their perspective is reality. Others, with their own perspectives, would disagree. That’s how we get generation gaps (Pirsig mentions the Beats and Hippies), and those clashing perspectives change reality before we know it.
  4. Romantics may disparage classicists in terms of culture (think “wind in your hair” vs “change the oil”), but classists pursue their own beauty: “to bring order out of chaos… everything under control. Its value is measured in terms of the skill with which this control is maintained” [p64].
  5. Don’t work on a motorcycle in the heat and sun. That will muddy your concentration and impede the rational thought process essential to caring for a machine whose every part is in its place for a reason — even if that “reason” is sometimes a bit crazy (I had two MGs!)
  6. I have a paperweight on my desk — piece of my old BMW’s suspension. It used to steady my car; now it’s holding Zen open.
  7. “The solution to problems too complicated for common sense to solve is achieved by long strings of mixed inductive and deductive inferences that weave back and forth between the observed machine and the mental hierarchy of the machine found in the manuals. The correct program for this interweaving is formalized as scientific method” [p97].
  8. The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you don’t actually know” [p98] … because we humans are apt to jump ahead, which is when Nature makes a fool of you.
  9. Experiments are useful because they test hypotheses, which helps us understand what we know, and — more important — what we don’t.  Richard Feynmans’s version (1974): “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
  10. Nature does not provide hypotheses. Humans do. Nature provides the data to test those hypotheses.
  11. Sometimes we forget, when romanticizing primitive man (hunter gatherers and all that), how our use of reason, which has vastly improved our quality of life, makes it easier to be romantic about a “life styles” that were nasty, brutish and short.
  12. A physical university cannot teach, like a physical church cannot bring spiritual comfort. The “real” university is the body of reason that allows our minds to connect, dialogue and discover. The “real” church is a spiritual connection with our community.
  13. The university — as a “Church of Reason” — is vulnerable to interference by those who prefer life be guided by (self-interested) ignorance. They can close the building, but they cannot stop scholars from rejecting superstition in favor of rationality.
  14. “The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time the material’s right.”
    “Sounds like art,” the instructor says.
    “Well, it is art,” I say. “This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural.” [pp 154-5]. For more on hand-mind coordination, see my review of Shop Class as Soulcraft (and soon, The Wisdom of Our Hands).
  15. “Education” is imitation. Repeat what you’ve been told to get a good grade. If you use your creative imagination, then you risk getting a bad grade. Grades get in the way of real education.
  16. If schools and universities eliminated grades, diplomas and certifications, then (merely extrinsically motivated) students would drop out. Those who remained would pursue knowledge, experiences and other means of feeding their intrinsic desires, i.e., pursuing quality. Here’s a long excerpt on those ideas [pdf], which are the most important ideas I took away from this book.
  17. What’s quality? We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it. If students and beginners can recognize quality, but teachers cannot define it, then what’s the purpose of teachers?
  18. Everyone wants more quality around them. Many people are willing to pursue it — even at a cost — due to the pleasure of the process as much as the achievement.
  19. Without a definition of quality, you can ignore (or do away with) all the experts and critics. I endorse this idea as a means of circumventing gatekeepers while allowing for the discoveries that follow when someone we know turns us on to something cool they’ve found — like this book!
  20. Many examples of knowledge (e.g., geometry) are not important for being true as much as for being convenient, i.e., helping you solve problems or understand.
  21. Facts are fun, but then they pile up into regular patterns… and then we start looking for exceptions. Harmony arrives when we can arrange facts and exceptions into patterns that resonate with reality.
  22. One can improve a dynamic system (e.g., life, a motorcycle, a conversation) by pursuing quality. That pursuit will never end; it will only evolve and respond — just like the dynamic system of interest.
  23. “Gumption” — that store of energy you need to overcome setbacks when working on motorcycles, writing blog posts, or re-engineering civilization — is not fixed. It depends on your attitude towards learning from mistakes, your dedication to quality, and your ability to concentrate on what others will disparage as “a waste of time.”
  24. People with gumption get shit done; those who whine about effort or “bad luck” usually quit before they get going. (I associate gumption with “flow;” “grit” seems to be used in the sense of “quiet suffering.”)
  25. “On any mechanical repair job ego comes in for rough treatment. You’re always being fooled, you’re always making mistakes, and a mechanic who has a big ego to defend is at a terrific disadvantage. If you know enough mechanics to think of them as a group, and your observations coincide with mine, I think you’ll agree that mechanics tend to be rather modest and quiet. There are exceptions, but generally if they’re not quiet and modest at first, the work seems to make them that way. And skeptical. Attentive, but skeptical, But not egoistic. There’s no way to bullshit your way into looking good on a mechanical repair job, except with someone who doesn’t know what you’re doing” [p 297]. Ideas also echoed in Shop Class and Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (review coming soon!)
  26. Logos (“rationality”) is not superior to mythos (“mythology”) but subservient. That relation is evident in the ways in which people privilege belief over fact (e.g., religion, sports fans, second marriages). It’s the reason culture matters. It’s the rejoinder of economists (“Forget your data! I have theory!”).
  27. The whole logos/mythos debate is as old as the words’ Greek origin, and I find it a useful idea, in terms of understanding “irrational” people (who presumably see me as soul-less). This discussion of assisted suicide is based on those different perspectives, with “autonomous liberalism” and “gifts-based liberalism” lining up with logos and mythos, respectively.
  28. Quality (in Phædrus’s view) drives mythos, in the sense that we need mythos to justify the pursuit of quality when it “doesn’t make sense” according to logos.
  29. Technology, objectivity, criticism use logos to bury mythos. Along the way, we become too critical of ourselves and others, which leads to isolation and loneliness. The pursuit of quality, art or pleasure from your surroundings  can make people more open and generous towards ourselves and others.
  30. Aristotle, the father of black-and-white classification, is the enemy of quality. And his works, with their outsized impact on “Western” mythos, explain scientific advances as well as psychological misery in cultures that value order over creativity.
  31. Although people find cities stressful in the ways they commodify work, living and everything else, cities can also be inspiring for the ways they connect not-so-rational people. Diverse cities are attractive; efficient cities have no soul.
  32. From a distance we can understand that value of a thing, but that distance also separates us from participating in its value: “He [Man] had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth — but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of equal magnitude: an understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it” [p 360].
  33. “The Church of Reason, like all institutions of the System, is based not on individual strength but upon individual weakness. What’s really demanded in the Church of Reason is not ability, but inability. Then you are considered teachable. A truly able person is always a threat. Phædrus sees that he has thrown away a chance to integrate himself into the organization by submitting to whatever Aristotelian thing he is supposed to submit to. But that kind of opportunity seems hardly worth the bowing and scraping and intellectual prostration necessary to maintain it. It is a low-quality form of life” [p373].

I hope these thoughts and excerpts inspire you to pursue quality, which is good for your soul. Want more? Read this book. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

  1. I’m 38 yo and it took me no less than three ernest attempts to get through this book over more than a decade. The last time, I was in Peru for an Ayuhuasca retreat in the Amazon and to hike the Inca Trail. Finally, the reading of it became less effortful, and by the end I felt like my own perception of my relationship with my father was healed. I finished the book on the bus to Lima and wept because the ending touched me so deeply. 5 Stars. Love your review.

  2. I loved it when I was 17, found it magical then – though that was in the late 70s shortly after it was written, so the zeitgeist of which it was a part was still alive and vibrant then.

    I re-read it when I was in my late 50s and enjoyed it as well, appreciated the philosophical perspectives at a much deeper level of sophistication. Sadly as I read it I was concerned that perhaps it would fade from memory because the zeitgeist of the 70s seems so far away now.

    I’m glad to see others reading it. It is a unique and distinctive book. Some day I intend to read his other one.

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