Synopses & Reviews
The modern epic that transformed a generation and continues to inspire millions -- a penetrating examination of how we live and how to live better.
A narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance becomes a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions of how to live. The narrator's relationship with his son leads to a powerful self-reckoning, the craft of motorcycle maintenance leads to an austerely beautiful process for reconciling science, religion, and humanism. Resonant with the confusions of existence, this classic is a touching and transcendent book of life.
This new edition is updated with important typographical changes, a penetrating new introduction, and a Reader's Guide that includes an interview with Pirsig and letters and documents detailing how this extraordinary book came to be.
About the Author
Robert M. Pirsig was born in 1928 in Minneapolis. He studied chemistry and philosophy (B.A., 1950) and journalism (M.A., 1953) at the University of Minnesota and also attended Benares Hindu University in India where he studied Oriental philosophy. He is also the author of a sequel to this book, entitled Lila.
Reading Group Guide
A narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son, the book becomes a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions of how to live. The narrator's relationship with his son leads to a powerful self-reckoning; the craft of motorcycle maintenance leads to an austerely beautiful process for reconciling science, religion, and humanism.
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is at once the story of
a motorcycle journey across the country; a meditation on values and the concept
of Quality; and an allegorical tale of a man coming to terms with his past.
Discuss which aspects of the novel you found most compelling, and why.
- Discuss Pirsig's Author's Note. What does he mean when he says "much has
been changed for rhetorical purposes?" Is he saying the book is fact or fiction?
How does his use of a first-person narrator make this a complex question?
What is the relationship between author and narrator?
- Discuss ZMM's epigraph: And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is
not good Need we ask anyone to tell us these things? How does this
query resemble a Buddhist koan a paradoxical or nonsensical question
that emphasizes the process of meditating on the question rather than the
answer? Why do you think Pirsig chose this excerpt to introduce the book?
- At the beginning of their trip, the narrator and John have a conversation
in which the narrator refers to education as "mass hypnosis," citing as an
example the fact that Newton's law of gravity is nothing more than a human
invention, as are laws of logic, mathematics, and ghosts. Why does this dialogue
take place at the outset of the novel, as opposed to somewhere in the middle
or the end of the trip? How is Pirsig preparing the reader for the novel's
- In setting out the topic for his Chautauqua, Pirsig compares the current
consciousness to a stream overflowing its channels, causing destruction and
havoc as it searches for new ones: "There are eras of human history in which
the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible,
and nothing new ever happened, and 'best' was a matter of dogma, but that
is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems
to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose.
. . . Some channel deepening seems called for." (p. 16). Can you explain this
metaphor? What sorts of change is he referring to? What does he mean by "channel
- As a writer of technical manuals, the narrator decries the current situation
in which the idea of who a man is has become separated from what he does.
He claims that in this separation are clues to "what the hell has gone wrong
with the twentieth century." How does this concept fit in to what you know
of Zen Buddhism, which celebrates the oneness of the universe? Do you feel
at one with your occupation? Explain why or why not. If not, what is keeping
you from feeling connected to what you do for a living? Would you feel more
satisfied, or be a better worker, if you did feel that connection?
- The narrator divides human understanding into two categories: romantic and
classical. Discuss the distinction between the two. How do you fit into either
of these dichotomies? Give examples that illustrate the tendencies that make
you, personally, either classical or romantic.
- How does Pirsig introduce and develop the character of Phaedrus? Can you
rely on the narrator to offer an accurate picture of Phaedrus's insanity?
Do you think Phaedrus really was insane?
- What do you think of the narrator's son, Chris? Does he seem troubled, or
merely a typical boy impatient with his father's behavior? Who do you think
is a better father to Chris Phaedrus or the narrator?
- Why do you think the narrator refuses to complete the trek up the mountain,
despite Chris's disappointment that they won't be reaching the top? Is the
threat of a rock slide real? Is he afraid to "meet" Phaedrus? Is he making
a statement about ego relative to Zen philosophy? What is happening in the
Chautauqua at this point in the book?
- Discuss the climactic scene a confrontation between Chris and the narrator
that takes place on a foggy cliff overlooking the ocean. Where is Phaedrus?
What does this scene reveal about all three characters? How does this scene
change your interpretations of the events that have lead up to it? What is
the significance of Chris and his father removing their helmets for the remainder
of the journey?