Robert Pirsig, 88, died yesterday at his home in Maine. Maybe you’ve never heard of him, but you’ve surely heard of his 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Nominally the story of a motorcycle journey Pirsig took with his son, Christopher, from Minnesota to San Francisco, the book is a philosophical exploration of the meaning of quality—in motorcycles, life, and writing—as much as it is a road trip story.
The Pirsigs were joined by two friends, John and Sylvia Sutherland, for half the trip. The book is tied together by philosophical discussions, called “chautauquas,” on what constitutes quality. For car and motorcycle enthusiasts who are not interested in philosophical discourse, the book’s framework—a bike trip—is equally worthwhile, as it examines opposing maintenance philosophies. The author has an older bike, which he maintains himself, while John has a newer bike that he just wants to ride, not fiddle with. He hires mechanics.
Pirsig didn’t seem to take himself or his work too seriously, though. In the book’s introduction, he states that in spite of its title, “it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either.”
Yet “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was a touchstone of the ‘70s and reached far beyond motorcycle fans to become part of the wider counterculture. Over the past four decades, it became a cult classic, one of the books new generations of wanderers, road trippers, and adventure seekers turned to for affirmation and inspiration. The title itself became a sort of shorthand for any number of endeavors that engendered philosophical examination.
Recognized as a child prodigy, Pirsig skipped several grades and began attending the University of Minnesota at age 14, but he became disillusioned after a couple of years and was kicked out due to poor grades. Following a stint in the U.S. Army, he returned to college to get his bachelor’s degree. It seems that he couldn’t learn enough. He spent the following eight years at several universities including Banaras Hindu University in India, studying Eastern philosophy and culture; the University of Chicago, researching philosophy and journalism; and, finally, at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a master’s degree in journalism.
His son Christopher was murdered in San Francisco in 1979. Robert Pirsig is survived by his wife, Wendy Kimball, and two children.