American author Robert M. Pirsig died on Monday at his home in South Berwick, Maine. His passing was made known by his publisher, William Morrow, who said that the writer’s health had been failing. Pirsig is most known for his classic 1974 novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintentance: An Inquiry into Values. Though the author never mentions the bike’s model in the book — on some editions there’s an illustration of an Indian motorcycle on the cover — in real life it was a Honda CB77 Super Hawk.
Ostensibly, the book is about a 17-day road trip that the narrator takes with his son across the American west. However, the work delves into philosophical ruminations about the conflict between the churn of technology and appreciating life as you live it. In his explanation, Pirsig describes how “classic” values, like working with your hands to fix or create something, are often at odds with “romantic” values, like taking in the beauty of an open road.
One way this manifested itself was in the narrator’s “classic” outlook on life, in which he found fulfillment by wrenching on his own bike. His traveling companions for part of the trip, riding a new BMW R60/2, chose not to learn about their machine, living for the moment and having faith that nothing would go wrong.
The conflict was also reflected in America at large at the time, with the 1960s counterculture rejecting technology as mainstream traditionalists seized upon and championed the idea of industry.
Ironically, these values sometimes flipped, with the hands-on tinkerer able to sustain himself and enjoy the journey while the romantic was forced to pay for expensive repairs when things didn’t go as planned.
Pirsig was born in Minneapolis in 1928, and is said to have had a genius-level IQ of 170, despite failing out of school. At 18, he enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Korea just after World War II. During leave, he visited Japan and learned about Zen Buddhism, which influenced his work and which he followed for the rest of his life.
The road trip described in Zen is based on an actual trek Pirsig took with his son Chris in 1968 from St Paul, Minnesota to Petaluma, California. Pirsig wrote Zen in his spare time over four years as he worked as a writer of computer manuals. After 121 rejections from publishers, he was picked up by William Morrow and sold 1 million copies his first year.
In the end, Pirisg decides both classic and romantic philosophies have equal merit, and tries to resolve their clash with a common underlying characteristic he calls “quality” that he finds indescribable, yet defining.