Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

by Robert M. Pirsig · read September 28, 2019


Usually I don't finish books that I really dislike, but this was an exception so I get to explain why I really didn't like it. I will say that there were small parts of the book that were of interest to me – the section where Phaedrus is comparing Greek concepts of Truth and the Good was neat and thinking about the pursuit of excellence (he would call it 'quality') when it comes to work like motorcycle maintenance seemed valuable – but they were buried under nonsense.

The most annoying things about this book, in no particular order: The narrator clearly thinks he's brilliant. The road trip is some kind of metaphor I didn't even try to understand. (Actually, there wasn't even a need to try to make this a novel, it should have just been nonfiction.) There are blatant spelling mistakes that indicates that no one edited it. The focus of the book jumps everywhere. There is a split personality subplot that adds no value and way too much distraction. The philosophical concepts are so poorly explained. The narrator is forced to constantly reference what he's said and explain what he's going to say due to the complete lack of structure. It's littered with short 'deep' sentences that come across as way too heavy handed and extremely out of place.

Okay, I could go on, but I'm going to stop here. Long story short, I gleaned something useful from this book, and maybe if I read it when I was 16 it would have been insightful, but it was a waste of time and its high reviews on Goodreads have me seriously questioning the judgement of some other people out there. Sorry Andrew, I tried for you.

This passage is an example of why I did not enjoy reading this book: if it had anything valuable at all to say, it was completely lost in a) its incomprehensibility and b) its perseverance in trying to sound as smart as possible even though it's NOT THAT DEEP.

At first the truths Phaedrus began to pursue were lateral truths; no longer the frontal truths of science, those toward which the discipline pointed, but the kind of truth you see laterally, out of the corner of your eye. In a laboratory setting, when your whole procedure goes haywire, when everything goes wrong or is indeterminate or is so screwed up by unexpected results you can't make head or tail out of anything, you start looking laterally. That's a word he later used to describe a growth of knowledge that doesn't move forward like an arrow in flight, but expands sideways, like an arrow enlarging in flight, or like the archer, discovering that although he has hit the bull's eye and won the prize, his head is on a pillow and the sun is coming in the window. Lateral knowledge is knowledge that's from a wholly unexpected direction, from a direction that's not even understood as a direction until the knowledge forces itself upon one. Lateral truths point to the falseness of axioms and postulates underlying one's existing system of getting at truth. To all appearances he was just drifting. In actuality he was just drifting. Drifting is what one does when looking at lateral truths.

I KNOW WHAT LATERAL MEANS. Okay, I'm actually done now.

Julia Cooke © 2023