Zen and Now On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance book109

by Mark Richardson

274 pages, $25.00

Knopf Publishing, copyright 2008

by Sev Pearman

If there is a sacred cow in motorcycle literature it has to be Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). With over four million copies sold, countless riders have read and revere it. Every rider I have ever met has heard of it. More than anything else, it is the touchstone non-riders will reference in conversation, in their attempt to understand riding.

I have a confession to make. Despite three attempts since 1985, I have never been able to finish Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) I know I am not alone in this admission, as others have whispered the same to me in private. You can imagine my surprise when, at a book reading for Zen and Now, author Mark Richardson cheerfully related that it took him three attempts over twenty-odd years to complete Pirsig’s tour de force.

Like many riders, he became fascinated with ZMM as a young man. Twenty years later, while on vacation with his wife and two sons, Mr. Richardson tackled ZMM and something clicked. In 2004, he decides to retrace Pirsig’s route as closely as possible and be open to what he will be shown.

Zen and Now takes on three mantles. The first is the author’s examination of his own life. As auto editor for the Toronto Star and family man, Mr. Richardson is longer able to ride as he pleases. He openly shares his frustrations and doubts as he pushes his overloaded 1985 Suzuki DR-600 westward from St. Paul. This isn’t simply the mid-life crisis of a guy trading a full head of hair for a paunch. He gives voice to those doubts and questions shared by us all.

Second, the author unlocks Pirsig’s work in a way that makes it accessible. Mr. Richardson skillfully weaves Pirsig’s history, passages from Zen and the Art… and descriptions of his own parallel ride. If a man reflects all he has experienced, then it is relevant to examine Pirsig’s childhood, his mental illness and his struggles with career, marriage and fatherhood.

Third, Mr. Richardson makes real the people and places in ZMM. You learn that Robert Pirsig was Minnesota-born and that ZMM was written in Pirsig’s family home, in St. Paul’s Desnoyer Park neighborhood. The characters encountered in ZMM are real people. Chris Pirsig did make the trek with his father and was murdered in San Francisco just before his twenty-third birthday. Fellow rider, John Sutherland is still alive. Though he sold it long ago, his /2 BMW still plies the roads of Wisconsin. Pirsig is still alive and living in New England. He still owns the 1964 Honda CB-77 Superhawk and will never sell it.

The diners, gas stations and motels depicted by Mr. Pirsig were real; many still exist today. Mr. Richardson aptly gives a sense of place as he re-discovers the towns, campgrounds and landmarks first described by Robert Pirsig. “Zen riders,” those who attempt to recreate Pirsig’s ride, will need two books: Pirsig’s Zen and the Art… and Zen and Now.

If Zen and Now has one fault, it’s that it tries to do too many things. I wanted to hear more of Mr. Richardson’s internal struggle and read more details of the people and places he encountered. All is forgiven for I finally feel able to complete Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Read this, tackle ZMM, then get on your bike. Three-and-a-half cylinders.

Verdict: Non-rider – Makes ZMM accessible and relevant.

Local Reader – Extensive Minnesota content fascinates.

Zen Rider – Details of place invaluable for those riding Pirsig’s route.

MMM welcomes your ideas for future book reviews. Send your suggestions to: sev@motorbyte.com Please put “Book Review” in the subject heading.

M.M.M.

1 Comment

  1. Sev,

    I finally got around to reading “Zen and Now” and, in particular, to appreciate your review of the book. You got to the core of both Richardson and Pirsig’s relationship and nicely summarized why reading both of these books is a worthwhile adventure.

    thanks,
    Tom

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