It is said that an awful number of people purchased Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance thinking that it would be a philosophical homage to their love of the American classic Harley-Davidson, or at the very least a deep and meaningful travel-log about a motorcycle ride across America. Imagine their surprise when they began to read the book, only to discover that it was neither the bearer of information about orthodox Zen Buddhist practices, or motorcycle maintenance either.
The book was published in 1974, under the full title Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : An Inquiry Into Values, by author and philosopher Robert M. Pirsig, and is a fictionalized biography that explores Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality.
The Metaphysics of Quality incorporates aspects of Sophism, East Asian philosophy, pragmatism and Native American philosophy which he says is a far clearer way of looking at the world than Aristotelian subjective and objective lenses. The Metaphysics of Quality also references Sanskrit doctrines such as Tvam Asi , which means "thou art that", which asserts that the self is identical to Ultimate Reality that is the origin of all phenomena.
Pirsig's title is a play on words and is inspired by "Zen in the Art of Archery" by Eugen Herrigel, which chronicles his own introduction to buddhism whilst learning the art of Kyudo, a form of Japanese archery, and which is widely credited with introducing zen to western audiences in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Pirsig's fictionalized biography tells of his seventeen day long motorcycle journey from Minnesota to northern California with his son Chris alongside him. They are also accompanied by family friends for part of the journey and the conversations between the group members included topics such as epistemology and the philosophy of science. The discussions are tied together by events that the un-named narrator experienced during his life and of things experienced by his past-self, whom he calls Phaedrus, a teacher of creative writing at a small college. Initially captivated by the question of what constitutes "good" writing, his inquisitive journey leads him to try electroconvulsive therapy which changes him for good - possibly the inspiration for the introduction of the philosophy of science into the group's conversations. The narrator becomes reconciled with his past at the end of the book.
Pirsig wrote the book as a sort of academic side hustle; by day he was writing computer manuals, by night, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Sleep was reserved for his lunch break at work, and lunch was abandoned all together. Although he wrote subsequent philosophical novels, he remains most well-known for this one, accepting the prestigious honor of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974. Pirsig passed away at the age of eighty-eight, in April 2017.