Zen and Now: On the trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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9780307397478: Zen and Now: On the trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
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On the Trail of Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Zen and Now is the story of a story that will appeal to the 5 million readers of the original and serve as an initiation to a whole new generation.

Since its original publication in 1968, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values has touched whole generations of readers with its serious attempt to define “quality” in a world that seems indifferent to the responsibilities that quality brings. Mark Richardson expands that journey with an investigation of his own – to find the enigmatic author of Zen and the Art, ask him a few questions, and place his classic book in context. The result manages to be a biography of Pirsig himself – in the discovery of an unknown life of madness, murder and eventual resolution – and a splendid meditation on creativity and problem-solving, sanity and insanity.

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About the Author:

Mark Richardson is the editor of the Wheels section of the Toronto Star. He turned forty-two at the end of his journey, which he amusingly explains is the “meaning of life,” according the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Zen and Now is his first book. He lives in Toronto.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


I can tell from the sign by the bank, without turning my head from the road, that it’s nine thirty in the morning. The sign flashes to show it’s 80 degrees, and the heat’s already coming through my jacket. It’s going to be hot today. That’s okay — on a motorcycle, heat is always welcome.

The small town passes, and I’m back among the fields. The bike’s running well this morning, and both of us are stretching out a little, starting to relax on the road now that this trip’s finally under way. You’ll have to excuse me if I think of her sometimes as if she’s a person. It’s just me now, me and my old bike.

I’m on Highway 55, the original road that runs up from Minneapolis toward Minnesota’s northwest. This is an old road, made from concrete with flattened stones in the mix for hardness and ridges every few dozen feet that set up a clickety-clack sound like a locomotive on its tracks.

There aren’t many cars on this stretch of highway because anybody who’s really trying to get somewhere is on the interstate that runs alongside a couple of miles away. Sit on the interstate and you don’t need to stop till you run out of gas. In fact, on the interstate, if you didn’t have to pull over every few hours and pay at the pump, there’d be no reason to ever slow down or even speak to anyone. Truckers do it all the time. Stay awake for long enough and you’ll be at the coast by Wednesday.

Not on this road, though. Trucks stay off this road. Clickety-clack. There’s been a track here for centuries, paved sometime in the 1920s or ’30s to better link farmers with their markets, Bible salesmen with their customers, children with their schools. This is the kind of road on which life happens, connecting other roads and streets and driveways and communities, not a thruway that picks you up here and throws you off there. It meanders around properties and makes way for the marshes that breed the ducks and red-winged blackbirds that take flight as I ride past. Clickety-clack.

The only way to truly experience a road like this is to be out in the open — not shut up in a car but riding along on top of it on a motorcycle. It’s tough to explain to someone who’s only ever traveled behind a windshield, sealed in with the comforting thunk of a closing door. On a bike there’s no comforting thunk. The road is right there below you, blurring past your feet, ready to scuff your sole should you pull your boot from the peg and let it touch the ground. The wind is all around you and through you while the sun warms your clothing and your face. Take your left hand from the handlebar and place it in the breeze, and it rises and falls with the slipstream as if it were a bird’s wing. Breathe in and smell the new-mown grass. Laugh out loud and your voice gets carried away on the wind.

At least that’s how it is on a warm, sunny day like this Monday morning. Some rain a couple of days ago was a struggle, but I won’t think about that now. There’ll be plenty of time for that later.

Clickety-clack. Somewhere beside the road near here should be a rest area with an iron water pump. Nearly four decades ago a couple of motorcycles stopped here, and their riders took a cool drink from the pump. Should be coming up on the left and — here it is. Just like in the book. This road really hasn’t changed much at all.

There’s a place to park the bike near some picnic tables under a shelter, and the grass drops down to a stream behind the trees. To one side is the iron hand pump that’s mentioned in the book. It still draws cool water. The spout is opposite the pump, so I have to dash around with my hands cupped to catch the gushing water. I capture just a trickle — I have no proper cup. The Zen riders would have brought a cup. Besides, there were four of them — enough for one to pump and another to drink. I’m on my own today.

Those Zen riders — they’re why I’m here. Robert Pirsig and his eleven-year-old son, Chris, on Pirsig’s old 28-horsepower, 305-cc Honda Superhawk CB77, and Pirsig’s friends John and Sylvia Sutherland on their new BMW R60/2. They were making a long summer ride back in 1968, and then Pirsig went and wrote about it and his book became a best seller. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is still in bookstores, and of the five million copies sold, two are in my saddlebags.

One of those two books is an early edition, liberated from the bookshelf in my aunt’s living room years ago because it had a picture of a motorcycle on its pink cover; the other is the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition, larger and a little revised. And now here, at the first stop mentioned in the book, it’s the pink edition I pull out and read awhile, lying back on the grass.
I’ve always been curious about this book, although it took years for me to read it all the way through. I pulled it from that bookshelf one quiet afternoon, settled on the sofa, and was captivated by its first pages, by the evocative description of these ponds and marshes and the riders’ gentle progress. It tells the story of a man and his son, ostensibly Pirsig and Chris, on a vacation trip to San Francisco by motorcycle from their home in the twin cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. This is the framework for a multilayered, intricately structured narrative that is far more about their personal struggles with inner demons than it is about getting to the coast. It’s also the platform from which Pirsig explores and explains his philosophy. Only a few pages in, the narrator wanders from his road trip to lament the lack of quality in his modern-day America, and that’s when my teenage attention tuned out. I took the book home anyway. There was something about that illustration on the back cover — a guy standing with his son, beside a motorcycle, looking away to the horizon.

A dozen years later, halfway through Philosophy 101 and getting nowhere, I found the book again and gave it another try. Reading slowly but steadily, I made it to the mountains of Montana before the term ended and other courses overwhelmed me. Something had clicked, though. Maybe it was Pirsig’s luggage list, his rhyming off of the same sweaters and gloves and rain gear that I’d grown accustomed to packing for frantic weekend trips to the mountains on my sport bike. More likely it was the items on the list that made us different: rope when I carried bungee cords; goggles instead of a full-face helmet; a cold chisel, a taper punch, and point files for those mysterious workings inside the bike’s engine, when I carried just a pair of Vise-Grips. Both of us were looking for the same thing from our travels, just using different tools.

It wasn’t until last summer that I picked up the book for a third time, looking for something to read on the first vacation in five years during which I could relax from some of the responsibilities of parenthood. That time, reading with a whole new perspective, I sailed right through. The guy got it! He wasn’t just looking for a nice vacation; he wanted to figure out “quality” as a thing in itself, not just a description — a noun, not an adjective. He wanted to learn what’s needed for his life — my life, everyone’s life — to move up a notch, to be the best it can be, truly harmonious in a world swamped by so many improvements that they buckle under the weight of their time-saving intentions. For me, as a busy parent juggling work with family, that perspective struck close to home.

But it’s showing its age, this book. It’s written in a folksy style that reminds me of my parents, and it refers constantly to the paraphenalia of a previous generation. Just a few pages in, reading now on the warm grass of the travelers’ pause at this exact place, I come to Pirsig’s description of Sutherland going through his luggage here and finding a pair of shoelaces and their joking about his overpacked bike. Shoelaces! These days, in 2004, my kids don’t even know how to tie shoelaces — their footwear uses Velcro.

If I want to update the journey, I must find out more about the people who forged it and follow their tire tracks for myself. The ultimate truth about the world is biography, wrote Pirsig much later, and while my tools will be different, the reward could still be great. Perhaps some of its lessons will rub off along the way.
Beyond the rest area the road is straight and predictable, rising and dipping through fields and swamps, bordered by blue and yellow wildflowers in the uncut verge. Every small pool I pass seems to have a heron at one end, eyeing the fish or the frogs and waiting to see which of them can stay more still, and ducks at the other end, paddling softly around the shoreline’s reeds. Such slow and lazy movement, while on the road itself the concrete stretches on and on, clickety-clack, as I ride steadily northwest and the hot sun slips across the sky.

At the side of the road up ahead there’s a dead animal, well picked over by predators and no longer recognizable for whatever it used to be. The road may be hot and sultry, but it is not kind. It’s hard and noisy and can kill anything in a blink if it’s not understood and treated with respect.

Back in Wisconsin a couple of days ago, riding to Minneapolis to start this journey, I passed through a national forest, and there, lying beside the road, was a bald eagle, huge and glassy eyed, its neck twisted. The bird’s feathers were scattered across the lane — a vehicle must have struck it as it swooped down for prey. I rode past, then doubled back and looked more closely, peering into its unseeing eyes and studying its sharp talons and perfect beak. Even in death it was int...

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780307390691: Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Vintage Departures)

Featured Edition

ISBN 10:  0307390691 ISBN 13:  9780307390691
Publisher: Vintage, 2009

9780307269706: Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Knopf, 2008

9780307397485: Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Vintag..., 2009

9781607518624: Zen and Now

Vintage, 2008

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