The motorcycling world lost a legend when Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died this week. He was 88.
Beyond its celebrated philosophical and observational musings, Pirsig’s 1974 novel offered profound insights into two-wheeled transportation, using a cross-country road trip with his son aboard a Honda CB77 Superhawk as a catalyst to reflect on the relationship between man, machine, and the open road.
Born in Minneapolis on September 6, 1928, Robert Maynard Pirsig was a brilliant but stammering and inattentive young man. According to the Associate Press, he had an IQ of 170 but flunked out of university at 17 — two years after he entered. After enlisting in the Army and serving in Korea, he returned to Minnesota and received his bachelor’s degree in 1950. Over the next eight years, he married, studied Eastern religions in India, lived in a Mexican seaside town, and wrote advertising for mortuary cosmetics, earning his master’s degree in journalism in 1958.
While teaching at the University of Illinois-Chicago in 1960, Pirsig was hospitalized for an emotional collapse. Several years later, still struggling with his illness, he set out to write what he intended to be a short essay about a motorcycle journey. The resulting manuscript — the unedited version of which was reportedly 30 percent longer than War and Peace — turned into Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
The book’s narrative struck a chord with readers because it dug deeper than conventional travelogues, exploring the dark corners of mental illness and what Pirsig called the “Metaphysics of Quality,” which attempted to merge Eastern and Western philosophies. But to motorcycle enthusiasts, the text dissected the transformative effect of experiencing the world around you on a motorcycle.
“On a cycle the frame is gone,” Pirsig wrote. “You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
For many motorcyclists, Pirsig’s discourses on riding were significant because they articulated a sentiment rarely experienced by non-riders; in its ultimate form, motorcycling transcends mere transportation and becomes a meditation. The novel also dissects Western concepts like materialism, applying the theory that quality is something that can be distilled into a quantifiable ideal, whether it resides “in the circuits of a computer, the gears of a transmission… or the petals of a flower.”
Occasionally dense and difficult to read, Pirsig’s masterwork was famously rejected by 121 publishers before William Morrow accepted it. The book sold 50,000 copies in three months and more than 5 million in the decades since, and has been translated into at least 27 languages.
The novel broke boundaries because it captured the zeitgeist of an era that longed for meaning and spirituality. Its success was doubly satisfying for motorcyclists because it reinforced much of what we already knew: that stimulating every sense while moving through space is an experience to be savored. That resonance makes Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the rare cultural artifact that connects two seemingly disparate worlds, while celebrating the frail beauty of being human.
Robert Pirsig published only one other book, 1991’s Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. In addition to his wife, Wendy, he is survived by his son, Ted, and daughter, Nell.