This meandering, dense, rather insane book is chockablock with ideas, which gelled at times and at others never fully took shape for me, or fell through gaps in my knowledge. There are two components: a sort of sermon on philosophy and philosophers, centered around the quest of the narrator (Pirsig as his past self, “Phaedrus”) to find an answer to the question “What is Quality?” and an autobiographical account of the author’s road trip with his son, who has started showing signs of the mental illness that Pirsig himself was impacted by and received electroconvulsive therapy for years before. He talks about Zen a little. And analogously as well as in practical terms about motorcycle maintenance. But he’s more interested in the ancient Greek philosophers and human understanding under the categories of classical and romantic thinking. He argues that we can't find truth with only a rational mind, that a romantic attitude is also needed in order to achieve a higher level of quality or "good" in our lives.
The last few chapters are the best of the book, particularly the one about gumption. And the puzzle in the author’s mind eventually comes together, although it's never complete. Questions lead to more and more questions, and Pirsig’s motivation and aim for the whole thing are fuzzy. His depression comes through the writing as well, which is a drag in places, somewhat counterbalanced by the occasional flash of humor or description of nature from his On the Road-like trip. I don’t know anyone I’d recommend this book to, and I doubt I’ll pick it up off my shelf again, but it’s certainly unique and turns wheels in the head.
Excerpt from Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974):
Zen Buddhists talk about "just sitting,'' a meditative practice in which the idea of a duality of self and object does not dominate one's consciousness. What I'm talking about here in motorcycle maintenance is "just fixing,'' in which the idea of a duality of self and object doesn't dominate one's consciousness. When one isn't dominated by feelings of separateness from what he's working on, then one can be said to "care'' about what he's doing. That is what caring really is, a feeling of identification with what one's doing. When one has this feeling then he also sees the inverse side of caring, Quality itself.
So the thing to do when working on a motorcycle, as in any other task, is to cultivate the peace of mind which does not separate one's self from one's surroundings. When that is done successfully then everything else follows naturally. Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all.