Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a highly unusual book. Robert Pirsig manages – against the odds, in my opinion – to string together many different strata requiring very different narrative styles. Because of the different lines Pirsig investigates the novel reads quite quickly for a philosophical book. When compared to a history of philosophy, or a popular philosophy like Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, Zen is much more digestible, especially when discussing the merits of philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, and Poincaré. On the other hand, Pirsig doesn’t go into as much depth or detail as Gaarder, and at times he uses selective arguments. When making a point on Locke’s polemics, Pirsig ignores the differentiation between primary and secondary qualities simply because it suits his own argument. His use of the word Zen in the title is similarly superficial – this branch of Buddhism is not explored in the book at all – so if you want to read about Zen this book is not for you.
From reading other reviews I have been directed to consider the problem of Pirsig as a father. Many readers feel the nameless narrator demonstrates bad parenting practices when dealing with his son Chris: ‘I’ve sometimes thought of him as a student’ (277); ‘I wish I knew what to say to him’ (299); ‘I’m not giving him strength. I never have been. I’m killing him’ (406), as well as (very surprisingly) calling the youngster an egotist. I don't think it’s fair to judge from a distance, but suffice to say there is definitely a rift between the two which lurks deep in their relationship. Although it can be distressing to witness the callousness that he constantly shows towards his son, that is at least alleviated towards the end of the book.
Having said this, I do truly hold Zen in high regard. All books have their contradictions and weaknesses, but all in all this is one I would recommend to almost anybody, as its subject is neither Zen nor motorcycle maintenance, but something much more universal, essential and human: thought.
'He is rediscovering an ancient and universal tradition, illuminating it by his own very peculiar method...' Observer
'If you wanted to be a man of God, it should be read before you decide to be. And if you wanted to write a book, it should be read before you invest in a typewriter...' Street Life