2011-2012 Summer Reading Project: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


“So I’ve been, uh, reading this book,” a student said to me one day after class. I know that there are plenty of teachers out there who have had this experience before, where students have completely enlightened them by introducing them to certain works of literature. Sadly, this has rarely, if ever, happened in my experience. That’s not to say that I haven’t had great discussions about books or movies or anything else with some students–I just have found my teaching career to be rather bereft of that moment of wonderment that my fellow bloggers and tweeters seem to constantly gush about. Until now (cue soaring music on the soundtrack).

Okay, snark aside, I would never have picked up Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had a student of mine not told me that he had been reading it and then after reading some more of it, came to me and said, “You know, you really should read it.” I’d heard about it before and thought to myself that if he was so into it to the point where he’d not only told me he’d been enjoying it but strongly recommended it, then I definitely should check it out. Thankfully, it was available for the Kindle and I downloaded it and began reading it. The gist of the book’s “plot” (if you can call it that) is that Pirsig is detailing a seventeen-day motorcycle journey with his son (and at first a couple of friends).

During this journey–which is mostly across the western part of the United States–he not only meditates on the trip itself but gets into deep philosophical thought and discussion with the reader about the nature of quality, especially when it comes to writing. This discussion reveals a rather dark secret from his past, which is that he was once an academic who became so obsessed with the nature of quality and this philosophical quandary that it drove him insane and the resulting therapy (I believe it was electroshock therapy) changed his personality to the point where he almost had an alter-ego named “Phaedrus.” This bit of his personal history–which is slowly revealed over the course of the book–is intriguing enough, as is the fact that the more he talks about “Phaedrus,” the more that particular part of his personality starts to creep back in and the more that upsets his son, with whom the narrator has a bit of an ongoing conflict (not a father-son fight or anything, more like a “We’re on the road and we’re getting irritated with one another just like any two people on a road trip will get irritated with one another” conflict).

So, that keeps you going through what winds up being a pretty long book (one of the disadvantages of some works on the Kindle is that the readout doesn’t always tell you how long the book is … yes, I know that shouldn’t matter, but I have this OCD thing about “pacing myself” through the books I read), and what keeps you staying is Pirsig’s discussion of the philosophical questions that led to his eventual breakdown. In fact, once I had “caught up” with where my student was in the book, our discussions about it (which were a couple of minutes here and there before or after class) centered around his questions regarding Greek philosophy, which is the school of philosophy that Pirsig explores in the book.

This was one of a couple of schools of thought that I actually understood when I was in college studying political science (as opposed to existentialism, which I just didn’t get), and even though it’s been more than 15 years since I seriously studied Plato or Aristotle I was able to answer a few of his questions or at least point him in the direction of the correct work that might answer any question he had. The one down side to the book is not the book itself but actually in the Kindle format because this is the type of book that bears studying (and honestly could probably be part of a course), and books like this, to me, are best in print form because I like to pick them up and skim the pages (my copy of Nicomachean Ethics is literally held together with Scotch tape) and that’s tough to do on a Kindle–I might go look for this at a used bookstore to see if I can pick it up on the cheap. But that downside doesn’t overshadow the upside, which is that I found myself having some great conversations with a student. He went on to read Plato’s <em>Apology</em> after this. I recommended he tackle Phaedo and even give The Republic a shot as well as venture into Aristotle, and I hope he gives it a try.