Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) by Robert Pirsig is a classic, a modern Walden with its inquiry into values and its journey off the beaten path. Many readers begin ZAMM, fewer finish it, but it is the kind of book to which you can return and finish later. I first read ZAMM in my twenties, then reread it in my thirties with a new kind of satisfaction. Another decade later, I am rereading it through Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Mark Richardson.
One of the compelling things about ZAMM is that the essence of the book is fact, both Pirsig’s motorcycle trip and his philosophical pursuit into the meaning of quality. Richardson follows Pirsig’s route on his own motorcycle, laptop and GPS along, aiming to reach the final destination of San Francisco by his 42nd birthday. As Richardson observes, 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of life in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It also happens to be my current age, and perhaps explains some of why the book worked for me.
Richardson does ZAMM readers a big favour with his carefully researched details about the real-life characters in the book. Richardson’s correspondence with Pirsig was met with helpful replies, but no opportunity for a meeting. Pirsig told him “the best place to meet an author is on the pages of his book”. Readers learn about Pirsig’s wife, Nancy; his son, Chris, who was murdered a few years after the book was published; and his other son, Ted, who was never mentioned in the book. Richardson meets John Sutherland, who helps set the record straight about himself and his wife Sylvia, and later dines with the DeWeeses.
Zen and Now does not attempt to delve into the philosophical depths of ZAMM. Richardson tactfully describes the real life schizophrenia suffered by Pirsig, which ZAMM frames as a sort of climax to his philosophical investigations. Personally, I do not subscribe to correlations of genius and madness. Pirsig managed to pull things together and write a second book, Lila, his preferred work, a coherent statement of his philosophy, though never as hot a bestseller as the first.
Richardson’s trip has many parallels with the original. Like Pirsig, Richardson is in a state of estrangement from his wife and two children, and is using the trip to help sort it out. Richardson’s storytelling has the same sleepy quality, with mindful observations about the road, and lessons about motorcycle maintenance that are really about caring for oneself and finding quality in life. If you are one of those who liked ZAMM but didn’t finish it, this book may be your way forward.
Book website: http://www.zenandnow.org/.