In a search for the meaning of life Robert Pirsig began his quest for quality. He set his mind free while riding his motorcycle to work on the idea of quality. Feeling the wind on his face, and judging the quality of the experience, he realized he could not define quality except in relative terms. Quality can only be defined in a curious relativistic way that spirals inward on itself asymptotically...

One of the most overrated books published in time to be idolised by my generation. It's chock full of ideas that look great on paper and completely fail to work in reality, and of small minded arrogant thinking which gives that extra edge of unpleasantness to teenage wannabe intellectuals.

People like it because they think it's deep and the fact that they understand it is a mark of their specialness - a marketing bonanza of the first water. Much of it is chauvinistic in the extreme; the whole opening sequence about the "mental block" people have about motorcycle maintenance - it being of course a crude metaphore for soul searching - is condescending in the extreme, and it gets worse later on, dividing people into different "groups" which are preternaturally good or bad at things... Race, age and gender are not mentioned, but they might as well be.

One of the more famous memes from the book is the idea of education as it includes a system, grading and discipline is a mechanism for stamping down the creative genius of young minds. The idea is that without grades, children and youngsters will be free to develop a genuine interest in the subject matter. It's a flop - I know because I went to a high school that implemented it. It's also put forward in a tone of voice which would earn a sharp ding across the ear from me if used to my face and in its most ironic twist so far had convinced one of my friends that he didn't need to read any book but Z&tAoMM ever again - because after all, all other texts are just after his nubile young brain and he should be wary of any effort at instruction.

It's a stupid and self righteous book - by all means read it, it's worth that if only to provoke thought - but don't bow to it. Adulation is what it craves.

It should be noted that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is largely a autobiographical. Most of the events, and certaintly all of the ideas, presented in the book actually happened to Robert M. Pirsig.

It should also be noted that Chris is dead. On November 17, 1979 he was murdered by two men in San Fransisco who tried to rob him as he walked out of the Zen Center. He said something that witnesses could not hear, and then one of the men stabbed him in the chest. Blood filled his lungs and he died on the spot.

Despite the book's disclaimer - that it will teach you nothing about either Zen or motorcycle maintenance - the bits on repairing motorcycles - whether or not they are intended as a metaphor - do actually contain quite a lot of useful perceptions regarding mechanical work in general (e.g. the coverage of stuckness and the general idea that you are better going off to get a coffee than taking out your frustrations on the machine), and I think that it helped considerably with a number of the minor technical skills I possess. On the other hand, I hold the book's lengthy discursions on quality largely responsible for that unholy plague on our society, Total Quality Assurance, and for that alone I must condemn it.

I think Albert Herring misunderstood Pirsig's "definition" of Quality. Total Quality Assurance is an idea that stems from what Pirsig calls "static quality." He diffentiated between Dynamic Quality and static quality in this way: Dynamic Quality is what is "real;" that is, our moment to moment existence, while static quality is man's attempt to capture and define that Dynamic Quality. Pirsig uses a wonderful quote by William James to show what he means : "There must always be a discrepancy between concepts and reality because the former are static and discontinuous, while the latter are dynamic and flowing."

So anyways, static quality is not necesarily bad, because without it there would be chaos and we would be unable to cope. It does run into problems, however, as in the case of Total Quality Management, when it refuses to acknowledge the Dynamic Quality that it was originally based on and attempts to set itself up as "reality".

Well, I think thats about the best I can do to represent Pirsigs metaphysics in a nutshell. If you're interested in more, Lila, the sequel to Zen, expounds on this theory and is another great read.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a great book. It has no pretense of being a blueprint for life. It is a candid account of Pirsig's efforts to work out a theory of ontology told in the form of a personal essay. He wanted to describe his intellectual journey and eventual mental breakdown. He talks about Aristotle and the Western approach to knowledge. He felt there was something fundamentally wrong with the academic world and with science in general, and tried to understand why. Pirsig's book deserves a place among the works of writers like Orwell, Huxley and H.G. Wells, authors who thought about how the industrial revolution had dehumanized society and caused us to lose something basic to our nature, something precious, the down side of Western Civilization. It is a very engaging book by a sincere, brilliant man. I remember reading it 30 years ago and enjoying it very much.

The fact that the book became popular and part of pop culture is not Pirsig's fault. Many young people were looking for meaning in their lives and became enthusiastic about the book. That is nothing to sneer at.

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