ZEN AND NOW by Mark Richardson

Book Quote:

“It’s the same thing in life, says Pirsig. Take the time to decide what you want; then take the extra time to make it happen according to your own terms. Slow down. Always remember that the real motorcycle that you’re actually working on is the cycle called Yourself.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (JUN 19, 2010)

Equal parts road trip, biography, philosophy and travelogue, Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an entertaining, educational and illuminating look at an American literary phenomenon and its creator.

In 1974 Robert Pirsig published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book was Pirsig’s attempt to articulate his “philosophy of Quality.” He posited that the inherent tension of modern life was a result of conflict created between different ways of looking at the world. There is the romantic approach, that is the “being in the moment” approach; and there is the classic approach, that of rational analysis. Pirsig’s narrator, fashioned after the author, suggests that in classic philosophy a division was made between these two ways of looking at the world. In antiquity, it was necessary, but for moderns it causes frustration and tension. He builds a philosophy around the pursuit of “Quality” to address this using a cross country motorcycle trip with his son and friends as framework. It is not necessary to be familiar with Zen and the Art to appreciate Richardson’s book. It is highly entertaining in it’s own right. But certainly it would be lacking if the reader has no inkling of the references.

Of equal import is a passing familiarity with Pirsig the man. Pirsig and his 170 I.Q. permeate both books like a heavy fog. He was a troubled yet brilliant man and eventually was institutionalized and subjected, forcibly, to electroshock treatment. The treatment erased a personality Pirsig dubbed Phaedrus, after a character in a Plato dialogue. Zen and the Art is also Pirsig’s attempt to come to grips with the shadow soul Phaedrus. Phaedrus comes and goes in Pirsig’s book, but is always lurking. Sadly, it was Phaedrus to whom Pirsig’s youngest son Chris clung as father, not Robert. As a result, Chris, who rode with his father throughout the trip captured in Zen and the Art, struggles with the loss of a father he loved, while wrestling with his own tenuous grasp on reality. Tragically, Chris was murdered outside the San Francisco Zen center two years later.

This is the world Richardson sets out, on the cusp of his 42nd birthday, to trace. Richardson is not a philosopher or academic. He is a journalist, specifically he writes about cars and motorcycles for The Toronto Star. Nor is his idea–to follow Pirsig’s route on a motorcycle–all that unique. We learn in Zen and Now of a generation of “Pirsig’s pilgrims” seeking enlightenment, or something akin it, on their cycles with the open road before them. Richardson is everyman to Pirsig’s singularity. He seems affable and accessible while Pirsig is distant and sullen. In common they share a love of the open road on a motorcycle and a modern, suburban angst. Both books continue a long tradition of truth seeking on the long stretch of highway.

Feeling lonesome–Richardson has two young boys and wife–and dreading the route through the mountains, Richardson wonders, “Why am I doing this, again? Not so sure now. To discover something? To relate more directly to the book that inspired me? To see some of the sights that Pirsig so eloquently described in his spare narrative? To get away from the wife and kids?” His questions are rhetorical, but hint at his reservations, nonetheless. He does not come across as a hard-core “seeker,” a true Pirsig pilgrim. That is refreshing, frankly. Again, his approach to the project stands in stark juxtaposition to Pirsig’s hellbent determination. A hundred pages or so later, Richardson comes back to the question. “I’ve just wanted the opportunity for so long now to devote time and effort to something without the phone ringing or rushing to get the boys to soccer practice. To do something for the pleasure of it without having to justify it first to my equally stressed-out wife. To sit and think….” Haven’t we all checked this box on occasion?

So sit and think he does. Though less thinking, it seems, than sitting. Outfitted on a 1985 Suzuki DR600, complete with GPS device (programed with Pirsig road-side highlights) and “Butt Buffer” gel seat pad upon with to do his sitting, Richardson sets out along Pirsig’s route from Minnesota to San Francisco, where he plans to celebrate his 42nd birthday. Richardson is a gear guy. He likes talking about bikes, about tires and breaks and clutches. And he seems a born curious traveler, which is the perfect companion for the armchair traveler. (I was reminded on more than one occasion of Paul Theroux, and his wonderful idiosyncratic travel books.) Along the way he stops at Pirsig stops, meets locals, as well as a few remaining original Pirsig characters. When he fills his gas tank, he goes to pains to try to find the same station Pirsig used. It’s fun to follow along. Richardson is affable and engaging, the physical ground he is covering is beautiful and dramatic, and the personal ground–middle-aged guy on a motorcycle roadtrip–is enlightening and thought provoking. Woven throughout is a pedestrian look at Pirsig’s philosophy. “A big part of the message of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance can be boiled down to a truism: if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Pirsig would spend hours considering a problem and its solution–how to fix a motorcycle, how to build a workbench drawer–and I so wish I had the time in my own life to devote to such satisfying pursuits. But I don’t.”

Don’t expect great insights here. Early on, Richardson tells us there are ample sources to turn to if you are feeling scholarly. Yet, his writing about Zen and the Art is refreshingly simple and accessible. We are fortunate that he found the time to carve out this adventure.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 14 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage (September 8, 2009)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Mark Richardson
EXTRAS: Excerpt

Wikipedia page on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

How to Live, Or a Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell


By Robert Pirsig:

June 19, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Non-fiction, United States

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