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On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Written by Mark RichardsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Mark Richardson

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On Sale: September 09, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-27048-1
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Part travelogue, part meditation on an author and his work, Zen and Now is a tribute to a beloved American book and the landscape that inspired it.

Since it was first published in 1974, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has become a modern classic, a beautifully constructed blend of travel narrative and philosophical inquiry that has moved generations of readers. One of those readers was journalistMarkRichardson, who after rediscovering the book at middle age, decided to retrace Pirsig’s journey. Fromthe back of his own motorcycle, Richardson investigates what happened to the reclusive Pirsig, his family, and the people described in the book in the years after its surprising success.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

Minnesota

I can tell from the sign by the bank, without turning my head from the road, that it’s nine thirty in the morning. The sign flashes to show it’s 80 degrees, and the heat’s already coming through my jacket. It’s going to be hot today. That’s okay—on a motorcycle, heat is always welcome.

The small town passes, and I’m back among the fields. The bike’s running well this morning, and both of us are stretching out a little, starting to relax on the road now that this trip’s finally under way. You’ll have to excuse me if I think of her sometimes as if she’s a person. It’s just me now, me and my old bike.

I’m on Highway 55, the original road that runs up from Minneapolis toward Minnesota’s northwest. This is an old road, made from concrete with flattened stones in the mix for hardness and ridges every few dozen feet that set up a clickety-clack sound like a locomotive on its tracks.

There aren’t many cars on this stretch of highway because anybody who’s really trying to get somewhere is on the interstate that runs alongside a couple of miles away. Sit on the inter- state and you don’t need to stop till you run out of gas. In fact, on the interstate, if you didn’t have to pull over every few hours and pay at the pump, there’d be no reason to ever slow down or even speak to anyone. Truckers do it all the time. Stay awake for long enough and you’ll be at the coast by Wednesday.

Not on this road, though. Trucks stay off this road. Clickety-clack. There’s been a track here for centuries, paved sometime in the 1920s or ’30s to better link farmers with their markets, Bible salesmen with their customers, children with their schools. This is the kind of road on which life happens, connecting other roads and streets and driveways and communities, not a thruway that picks you up here and throws you off there. It meanders around properties and makes way for the marshes that breed the ducks and red-winged blackbirds that take flight as I ride past. Clickety-clack.

The only way to truly experience a road like this is to be out in the open—not shut up in a car but riding along on top of it on a motorcycle. It’s tough to explain to someone who’s only ever traveled behind a windshield, sealed in with the comforting thunk of a closing door. On a bike there’s no comforting thunk. The road is right there below you, blurring past your feet, ready to scuff your sole should you pull your boot from the peg and let it touch the ground. The wind is all around you and through you while the sun warms your clothing and your face. Take your left hand from the handlebar and place it in the breeze, and it rises and falls with the slipstream as if it were a bird’s wing. Breathe in and smell the new-mown grass. Laugh out loud and your voice gets carried away on the wind.

At least that’s how it is on a warm, sunny day like this Monday morning. Some rain a couple of days ago was a struggle, but I won’t think about that now. There’ll be plenty of time for that later.

Clickety-clack. Somewhere beside the road near here should be a rest area with an iron water pump. Nearly four decades ago a couple of motorcycles stopped here, and their riders took a cool drink from the pump. Should be coming up on the left and—here it is. Just like in the book. This road really hasn’t changed much at all.

There’s a place to park the bike near some picnic tables under a shelter, and the grass drops down to a stream behind the trees. To one side is the iron hand pump that’s mentioned in the book. It still draws cool water. The spout is opposite the pump, so I have to dash around with my hands cupped to catch the gushing water. I capture just a trickle—I have no proper cup. The Zen riders would have brought a cup. Besides, there were four of them—enough for one to pump and another to drink. I’m on my own today.

Those Zen riders—they’re why I’m here. Robert Pirsig and his eleven-year-old son, Chris, on Pirsig’s old 28-horsepower, 305-cc Honda Superhawk CB77, and Pirsig’s friends John and Sylvia Sutherland on their new BMW R60/2. They were making a long summer ride back in 1968, and then Pirsig went and wrote about it and his book became a best seller. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is still in bookstores, and of the five million copies sold, two are in my saddlebags.

One of those two books is an early edition, liberated from the bookshelf in my aunt’s living room years ago because it had a picture of a motorcycle on its pink cover; the other is the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition, larger and a little revised. And now here, at the first stop mentioned in the book, it’s the pink edition I pull out and read awhile, lying back on the grass.





I’ve always been curious about this book, although it took years for me to read it all the way through. I pulled it from that bookshelf one quiet afternoon, settled on the sofa, and was captivated by its first pages, by the evocative description of these ponds and marshes and the riders’ gentle progress. It tells the story of a man and his son, ostensibly Pirsig and Chris, on a vacation trip to San Francisco by motorcycle from their home in the twin cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. This is the framework for a multilayered, intricately structured narrative that is far more about their personal struggles with inner demons than it is about getting to the coast. It’s also the platform from which Pirsig explores and explains his philosophy. Only a few pages in, the narrator wanders from his road trip to lament the lack of quality in his modern-day America, and that’s when my teenage attention tuned out. I took the book home anyway. There was something about that illustration on the back cover—a guy standing with his son, beside a motorcycle, looking away to the horizon.

A dozen years later, halfway through Philosophy 101 and getting nowhere, I found the book again and gave it another try. Reading slowly but steadily, I made it to the mountains of Montana before the term ended and other courses overwhelmed me. Something had clicked, though. Maybe it was Pirsig’s luggage list, his rhyming off of the same sweaters and gloves and rain gear that I’d grown accustomed to packing for frantic weekend trips to the mountains on my sport bike. More likely it was the items on the list that made us different: rope when I carried bungee cords; goggles instead of a full-face helmet; a cold chisel, a taper punch, and point files for those mysterious workings inside the bike’s engine, when I carried just a pair of Vise-Grips. Both of us were looking for the same thing from our travels, just using different tools.

It wasn’t until last summer that I picked up the book for a third time, looking for something to read on the first vacation in five years during which I could relax from some of the responsibilities of parenthood. That time, reading with a whole new perspective, I sailed right through. The guy got it! He wasn’t just looking for a nice vacation; he wanted to figure out “quality” as a thing in itself, not just a description—a noun, not an adjective. He wanted to learn what’s needed for his life—my life, everyone’s life—to move up a notch, to be the best it can be, truly harmonious in a world swamped by so many improvements that they buckle under the weight of their time-saving intentions. For me, as a busy parent juggling work with family, that perspective struck close to home.

But it’s showing its age, this book. It’s written in a folksy style that reminds me of my parents, and it refers constantly to the paraphenalia of a previous generation. Just a few pages in, reading now on the warm grass of the travelers’ pause at this exact place, I come to Pirsig’s description of Sutherland going through his luggage here and finding a pair of shoelaces and their joking about his overpacked bike. Shoelaces! These days, in 2004, my kids don’t even know how to tie shoelaces—their footwear uses Velcro.

If I want to update the journey, I must find out more about the people who forged it and follow their tire tracks for myself. The ultimate truth about the world is biography, wrote Pirsig much later, and while my tools will be different, the reward could still be great. Perhaps some of its lessons will rub off along the way.





Beyond the rest area the road is straight and predictable, rising and dipping through fields and swamps, bordered by blue and yellow wildflowers in the uncut verge. Every small pool I pass seems to have a heron at one end, eyeing the fish or the frogs and waiting to see which of them can stay more still, and ducks at the other end, paddling softly around the shoreline’s reeds. Such slow and lazy movement, while on the road itself the concrete stretches on and on, clickety-clack, as I ride steadily northwest and the hot sun slips across the sky.

At the side of the road up ahead there’s a dead animal, well picked over by predators and no longer recognizable for whatever it used to be. The road may be hot and sultry, but it is not kind. It’s hard and noisy and can kill anything in a blink if it’s not understood and treated with respect.

Back in Wisconsin a couple of days ago, riding to Minneapolis to start this journey, I passed through a national forest, and there, lying beside the road, was a bald eagle, huge and glassy eyed, its neck twisted. The bird’s feathers were scattered across the lane—a vehicle must have struck it as it swooped down for prey. I rode past, then doubled back and looked more closely, peering into its unseeing eyes and studying its sharp talons and perfect beak. Even in death it was intimidating.

A few miles on, as I was half watching wakeboarders on a river that flowed alongside the highway and was heading into the curves a little faster than usual, the tires hit a series of expansion joints filled with lines of slippery black bitumen. The leaning bike slid into the oncoming lane before I could correct it. Whoa! There was no one else on the highway and it was no big deal, but this anonymous roadkill here in Minnesota is a reminder of the road’s potential treachery.

After a while now there are railway tracks on the left and a train up ahead. The bike’s moving at maybe 60 miles an hour while the train is pressing along at ten less than that, so in a few minutes I catch up with it and begin to pass. The boxcars are covered in graffiti, and it’s tempting to watch every carriage as it slides by, reading the graffiti artists’ names. Eventually I reach the front and look across to the driver, who’s looking across at me. We wave to each other. Looking back, I see a blackbird fly- ing alongside on the right. Its red-tipped wings blur against the blue sky.

I take my feet off the pegs and skim them along the road, stretching my stiff legs. Holding the handlebars for balance, I lean into the wind, and it’s as if the bike is flying. The bird soon goes away and the train soon drops behind, but the feeling stays there as the miles roll on, clickety-clack, reluctant to fade.





At its heart, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a simple tale that praises basic values and decries ugly technology. Pirsig tells his story while riding the secondary roads across the Dakotas to the mountains, touching Yellowstone National Park before a pause in Bozeman, Montana. From there, he crosses into Idaho and over to Oregon before dipping down into California and reaching the Pacific coast and San Francisco. Pretty good trip, really.

In keeping with the theme, Pirsig’s bike was a simple one that he maintained himself along the way. He was a capable mechanic who had made his living writing technical manuals for com- puters and military hardware, and who took great pleasure in doing a precise job properly. He’d strive to achieve excellence—quality—in everything he did, applying exactly the correct amount of measured pressure to a nut to ensure it was tight without becoming burred, or spending those extra few minutes dripping oil on the bike’s drive chain to make certain it was properly lubricated. He couldn’t bear machinery that was not well tuned, be it an engine or a faucet, and he’d spend as much time as necessary to make sure a problem was fixed properly. Like my bike, his was a simple machine that responded well to simple care. For a man able to explain guided missile launch systems to their operators, the dissection of a two-cylinder motorcycle engine came easily.

Mind you, everything he learned came through trial and error. He tells of breaking down on a motorcycle trip with Chris up to Canada when the boy was probably about eight. It was raining hard, and the bike just stuttered to a halt. He checked all he could think of on the engine, shook the bike to hear the gas sloshing in the tank, pulled out the plugs, and eventually gave up. The two of them hitched home and returned with a trailer for the bike. Two weeks later, checking it over at home, Pirsig found the problem: he’d run out of gas. The sloshing was in the reserve tank, which he hadn’t switched on because he’d assumed he had plenty of gas and the rain was the cause. From then on, he didn’t assume anything and took the maintenance of his bike very seriously.

Most certainly he didn’t trust that others would invest the time and care that a problem deserved. There’s a lengthy diatribe in Zen and the Art against the mechanics who failed to diagnose the reason his bike’s engine seized and who butchered the motor in the process, rounding the bolts of the tappet covers with a wrong-size wrench and smacking a hole through the aluminum cover with a chisel. These were guys who listened to the radio while working, and Pirsig would have none of it. He eventually found the cause himself through a painstaking disassembly, and used the example to demonstrate the lack of concern for quality in many people’s lives—and, by extension, how a job’s worth doing properly.

Back then there was often a simple solution. If the bike broke down somewhere, you’d just unwrap the Honda tool kit and pull the engine apart to the piston rings right beside the road. If the electrics were flickering, you might wrap some foil from a cigarette pack around the contacts and be on your way; if the suspension collapsed, you could hike to a nearby farm and barter with the farmer for an old length of tractor spring to do the job till you got home. Maybe you’d even stay the night in the barn because it had gotten late and the farmer’s beautiful daughter would keep you company.

Not today, though. Today’s machines are filled with wizardry so that they’re more powerful, more responsive, and more reliable, so that they go even faster to wherever it is you’re going. They still break down, but their high-tech parts often can’t be fixed unless there’s a software patch; just throw the piece away and replace it with a new one, if there’s one in stock. You never get to search for a strip of foil from a cigarette pack or for a tractor spring, and you never meet the farmer’s daughter.





He’s well into his seventies now, Robert Pirsig. He lives in New England and works hard to remain a recluse. He’s written only one other book since Zen and the Art, an autobiographical novel called Lila, which delves even more deeply into the modern search for quality and morals, and which some, including Pirsig himself, consider the superior work, but although it’s sold more than half a million copies, it has not been a blockbuster.

I wrote to him and asked for a meeting, and he wrote back right away. “The best place to meet an author is on the pages of his book,” he wrote kindly, turning down the request. “Anywhere else is a disappointment, believe me.”

After all, the narrator of Zen and the Art, who is not Pirsig himself but a character who shares his name and many of his foibles, is ultimately quite unpleasant. Pirsig admits at the opening of the book that “although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact.” As he tells it, in making the ride to Bozeman in 1968, he was reliving a part of his life that had been erased several years before. For he had once taught there, at Montana State College. With an IQ of at least 170, he was a tortured genius whose intellectual restlessness drove him insane at age thirty-three; he spent Thanksgiving of 1961 in a mental hospital and fluttered in and out of schizophrenic madness for two years. Finally, his wife and father had him committed to a psychiatric ward, where—according to the narrator—his memory was damaged by electric shock therapy and from which only fragments of his former self could be recalled.



“He was dead,” wrote Pirsig.

Destroyed by order of the court, enforced by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes of his brain. Approximately 800 mills of amperage at durations of 0.5 to 1.5 seconds had been applied on twenty-eight consecutive occasions, in a process known technologically as “Annihilation ECS.” A whole personality had been liquidated without a trace in a technologically faultless act that has defined our relationship ever since. I have never met him. Never will.



Pirsig called his former personality Phaedrus, and much of the conflict takes place between Phaedrus and the narrator as they struggle for control over the father’s mind and, in turn, for control over the son. Young Chris Pirsig is caught in the middle, remembering the affectionate father he once knew and the father who now wears that man’s face. But he rarely sees the face. For the many hours that they’re riding on the little Honda, the narrator is in front, with the sun and wind and rain on his chest and the controls at his fingertips, master of the motorcycle, while Chris is behind, unable to see much, unable to speak or be heard, alone with his thoughts, sometimes crying, yearning for the father he lost six years before, who has been replaced by the broad back of this tyrant.

I could not write to Chris. In 1979 in San Francisco he was stabbed to death outside the Zen Center, where he had been studying. He was about to turn twenty-three.

. . .



It’s getting even hotter now. The farmland is widening, and the ground is drying—fewer trees, and the few there are have been planted to protect the farm buildings from the wind. The bike’s going to need gas soon. She doesn’t go that far on a tank.





When I first began planning this trip seriously, I traded a few brief letters with Pirsig, as well as with Nancy, his wife at the time, and his surviving son, Ted. It didn’t take long to find addresses for two of the other characters in the narrative: John Sutherland of Minneapolis, who rode with his wife, Sylvia, alongside the Pirsigs for the first week of their journey to Montana, and Gennie DeWeese, who hosted the Pirsigs and Sutherlands for a few days in Bozeman before the travelers split up to complete their vacations separately.

Both Sutherland and DeWeese wrote to say they’d be pleased to meet with me. They’re used to such requests, for each year several “Pirsig’s pilgrims” make the same trip and seek out the elements of the book.

Arriving in Minneapolis just a couple of days ago, I called John Sutherland, and we met up yesterday morning. He’s separated from Sylvia, although they remain close friends. I asked if she’d speak with me about the book, and he was emphatic that she would not. She didn’t like the book and wants to forget about it, he said.

That is because the two of them come across as shallow—they’re supposed to represent the carelessness and sloppiness of modern life. Pirsig’s acknowledgment that he’s taken some liberties in his portrayals must be small consolation to Sylvia. Sutherland, though, says he’s not bothered about being portrayed as an affable drunk who can’t fix his bike or even a dripping faucet. Worse than that, in Pirsig’s view he doesn’t care about the dripping faucet. He lives now in a bungalow near downtown Minneapolis (with all the faucets tight) and was pleased to talk about the good old days, although he has no souvenirs from the ’68 trip. It wasn’t that big a deal at the time, he explained.

Sutherland later became a pro photographer, but he hadn’t taken any pictures back then—the few that survive are from Pirsig’s camera. They’re on the Internet now, those dozen pictures, and I’d printed some copies for just such a meeting as this. Sutherland has no computer and was pleased to accept the prints, even if he was none too sure of their primitive color. “Color photos give you exactly what you see,” he said. “Black-and-white still has a mystery about it.” Here he is with Sylvia, posing with young Chris at a mountain pass and again somewhere on the prairie. Here he is with Bob Pirsig hoisting Chris between the bikes. The three of them leaning against a hay bale. You’ve probably got family pictures just like them.

I showed him some of the photos I’d taken on the road to Minneapolis, and he peered into the little digital screen on the back of my camera and muttered something about today’s technology. There were a dozen photos just of the dead eagle, and I flipped through them quickly to find the best. “It’s a lot easier when you don’t have to develop them all, isn’t it?” said Sutherland. “When you don’t have to pay for all the paper and chemical?” But there was no good photo of the eagle; every picture just showed a dead bird, ants crawling through its feathers.

Sutherland’s favorite photographs are framed and presented on tables throughout his small home or stored in flat boxes on the bookshelves. He looks good in his old pictures, as he does in Pirsig’s photos from the trip. These days his dark hair has thinned, his gut has filled, and his hearing requires a visitor to use a loud voice, but he seems fit for a man in his late seventies and keeps active. Most days he heads over to his wife’s apartment, or visits one of his four daughters. So after some coffee we drove around awhile to see the Twin Cities and to take a look at Pirsig’s old house in St. Paul.

It’s a good-size family house on a quiet, leafy street, with white siding and green-shuttered windows and a large sheltered front door. A thirty-something woman was tending the flower garden in front, and we introduced ourselves. Her name was Susan Nemitz, and she was thrilled to meet us.

“John!” she called to her husband. “We’ve got visitors interested in the Pirsigs!”





For Sutherland, stepping through the front door on that sunny Sunday afternoon into the shade of the dark wood hallway, it was the first time he’d been back in the house since his friends had moved away.

“These people know about the Pirsigs and are interested in the house,” Sue said to her husband as he came downstairs. “And this is John Sutherland, the same John Sutherland who’s in the book and who rode with them for a while.”

John Curry, her husband, knew all about Zen and the Art and was impressed to meet Sutherland, who in turn was rather tickled to receive the attention. We were offered Coke and Fresca and Welch’s grape juice, and Sutherland’s memory was tapped for his recollections of the trip. After all, Sue and John had each read the book before they bought the house and were pleased to move into a home once lived in by a famous genius and his family.

“I remember cocktail parties in here,” said Sutherland, looking into the paneled living room. “Bob was the quiet one, but Nancy was much more lively and was such a great host. Always plenty to eat and always plenty to drink. The kids were upstairs in their rooms, and we were down here drinking and eating. Those were great parties.”

Looking up the dark wood stairs, he remembered his girls going up there to hang out with the Pirsig boys while their parents visited.

“The boys had guinea pigs, and my girls, who were a few years younger, loved to come over to see them and play. We stayed down here and talked about politics, the university—all kinds of things.”

“And how would you describe yourself now?” asked Sue.

“Well, I’m a social worker, a jazz musician, a photographer, and a recovering alcoholic.”

“Ah,” she exclaimed, and then, to lighten the suddenly somber mood, “a Renaissance man!”

Sutherland smiled at her graciousness. He hasn’t had a drink since his family surprised him with an intervention in 1979, but alcohol runs through the Zen and the Art journey. Sutherland’s probably the worst of the travelers, always propping up a bar somewhere, stopping for beers at lunch and a nip of something in the afternoon, followed by late-night liquors, but his wife and friends aren’t too far behind. One of the things that date the book is all the breaking for booze before getting back on the bike.

Sutherland took another sip from his Fresca, and Sue asked about the Pirsig boys. Like me, she’s been in touch with the surviving younger son, Ted, who lives in Hawaii and maintains no contact with his father but has fond memories of the house in which he grew up.

“Ted and Chris really didn’t get along,” Sutherland said more quietly.

“If one boy was in a room and the other walked in, that boy would get up and leave. On the trip, Chris was kind of a drag, always whimpering. But I think we helped Chris, helped him to get away from the whole father-son thing. They tried—Nancy would do something with Ted one year, then Bob with Chris— but there wasn’t too much emotional togetherness in that whole crew.”

The room was quiet. None of this was news to Sue and John, for they’d corresponded with Ted, but it was hard to hear it in this house, in which they’re now making a life with their own young daughter. Before they’d bought the house eight years ago, with Sue pregnant and the two of them looking for a happy family home, they’d almost purchased a property that seemed perfect, but it was being sold because of a divorce and they eventually shied away from its “bad karma.”

“We thought this would be a happier place,” said Sue, “but we learned afterward that they weren’t really all that happy here. So now we think of it as a creative place. And we’ve made it happy.”

The rooms and layout are still as the Pirsigs would recognize them. The original workbench remains in the basement, well constructed and solid, its drawer still sliding reliably on the wheels from the boys’ roller skates. When Ted wrote to tell them of a secret walled-up room under the front stairs, where he and his brother would hold up a mirror to look through a gap high in the paneling to see only blackness, John Curry had gone down there to look for himself.

With mirror and flashlight in hand, he took me downstairs to see it. There was a small hole in the wall above where a mosaic of his daughter’s artwork had been pinned to the panels. John shone the flashlight through the hole and angled the mirror beside it to show me the interior. The reflection on the silvered surface was dark and unclear, and the space there, probably five feet square, remained obscure.

“I think there are skeletons in there,” he said with only a half smile. “Lots of skeletons.”





After we left the Pirsig house, Sutherland drove us past the house on Clarence Avenue in Minneapolis where Maynard and Harriet Pirsig had lived most of their days, raising their son, Robert; their younger daughter, Jean; and later, an adopted daughter, Wanda, whose unmarried mother had lived next door. Harriet had cared for Wanda as a baby while her mother went to work; when the mother went to California to find a better job, she left her eight-month-old behind, planning to return for her when she became established, but she never reclaimed the child. For the rest of their lives, Harriet and Maynard considered her their own.

We passed the campus where Sutherland had met Pirsig in the mid-’60s while attending lectures on Eastern philosophy. Robert had been involved with the university from early in his life. In kindergarten, being already able to read and write, he was promptly bumped up to the second grade, where, as the smallest child in the class, he was bullied and picked upon. It didn’t help that his teachers made him write with his right hand when he was naturally left-handed and that he developed a stammer. So his parents enrolled him in a school for the children of university faculty, where his classmates were his own age and he was allowed to write with his left hand, and he excelled. From there he went on to the university high school and then to the university itself, studying chemistry when he was just fifteen years old. He was an otherwise normal teenager, enjoying chess and keeping a wild squirrel in his bedroom; he called it Gus, and the rodent chewed on his wooden chess pieces. But at eighteen, with the rapid academic progression being all too much too soon, he was expelled from the university for failing grades, inattention to his studies, and overall immaturity.

“Here I am a child prodigy,” he told a journalist many years later, “and I’d like to discover—I know this is a childish dream—the secret of life, to know everything there is to know, to be an intellectual master of things. And they’re trying to seal me into Wrap and Wax for the rest of my life.” And as he also once wrote, pure science should be a search for truth, not for profit.

Unwilling to go to work for the local waxed paper manufacturer with the university’s chemistry grads and unsure of his calling, Pirsig joined the army and was sent to Korea for fourteen months; in Asia he discovered ways of thinking that went far beyond the rigid rationalism of Western tradition. “I told the Koreans one time the most marvelous thing about the English language is that in 26 letters you can describe the whole universe. And they just said, ‘No.’ That was what started me thinking.”

After his discharge he returned to the University of Minnesota to study philosophy and pursue a why-are-we-here ideal that he called “the ghost of reason,” but it eluded him. On earning his bachelor of arts, he went to India with money from the GI Bill and enrolled at Banaras Hindu University to study Eastern philosophy, but he spent more time traveling around than poring over books; in his own words, “nothing much happened,” and he returned to Minnesota to take up a more practical pursuit—the study of journalism.

His parents expected a lot of him, for they had both risen from a poor midwestern farming background to affluent success through a combination of intelligence and sheer grit. Maynard had spoken only German until he went to school and then became the first person in his town to go on to college; at the University of Minnesota Law School he earned the highest grades ever recorded and eventually became its dean and one of the most respected—and toughest—lawyers in the region. “I used to have many enemies in this state,” he once told an audience. “I’m pleased to report to you that now they’re all dead!”

Harriet, the oldest child in a large Swedish family in northern Minnesota, had it harder. Her mother died when she was twelve years old. Her father, a simple man who needed a wife to care for the family and his own needs, claimed a version of Swedish tradition and took Harriet into his bed. Within a year she bore him a child. When the authorities found out, they were horrified: her father was committed to an asylum and the seven children were placed in foster homes around the state. Not Harriet, though, who was devastated to lose the father she still loved. She moved to Minneapolis, where she found room and board in exchange for reading to an old, blind scholar and put herself through high school and then college, where she met Maynard.

Harriet eventually found all her siblings, but the illegitimate baby was lost, its fate never recorded. “It doesn’t matter to me,” Maynard told her, “but don’t ever tell anyone about it.” Which she did not—until the day more than thirty years later when Robert Pirsig was visiting his parents’ home and answered the ringing telephone; a state official was on the line, asking permission to perform surgery on Mr. Sjobeck, the grandfather he’d always believed was dead. The sordid story came out when he confronted his parents, but it would still not be spoken of outside the family.



. . .

On the way home we drove by the house of one of Sutherland’s daughters, and when he saw her out walking with her children, we stopped for a chat through the car window.

“I told them about how you’d go upstairs and play with the guinea pigs,” he said about the day’s visit.

“Dad!” And she grinned. “We hated those guinea pigs. We thought they were creepy!”


From the Hardcover edition.
Mark Richardson|Author Q&A

About Mark Richardson

Mark Richardson - Zen and Now

Photo © Toronto Star

Mark Richardson is a motorcycle and auto editor and writer for the Toronto Star.

Author Q&A

Q: When did you first read Zen and the Art o f Moto rcycle Maintenance?
A:
I started reading it as a teenager in the late ’70s, which would have been just a few years after it came out – my aunt had a copy and I thought it would be about motorcycles. I only got about 50 pages in before I gave it up. I think a lot of people have started to read it, but never finished it. It can get quite heavy in places.

Q: You mention that it took you three rounds of reading Zen and the Art to really enjoy and “get” it, and this was when you were 40 and a father. Why do you think this is?
A:
The first time, I wanted to read about motorcycles and discovered fairly quickly that it wasn’t really about motorcycles – it just used a motorcycle trip as a framework for its philosophical treatise. The second time was in university 10 years later when I got about half-way through, reading it for its philosophy and trying to follow every nuance of rhetoric and not really succeeding. The third time was on a family vacation in the summer of 2003 and I picked it up because I just wanted a book to read. This time, I didn’t really try too hard to follow its philosophy and just skipped over theheavy bits. I finished reading it on my 41st birthday, lying in a hammock beside a lake. When I got to the end, I immediately started reading it again from the beginning, not skipping over anything, and enjoyed it immensely. It wasn’t such a dense read because I’d already laid the groundwork for what to expect. And as a husband and father who was dissatisfied with the chaos of family life, I found it to be a refreshing and gratifying read.

Q: There are many other people who have followed the route from Minneapolis to San Francisco which Robert Pirsig took in Zen and the Art. They even have a special name: Pirsig Pilgrims. Are you the first person to record the journey this way? And where did the idea for this book come from?
A:
The people who follow this route all do so for very personal reasons. I’m no exception. Before I set out, I’d hoped there may be a book at the end of it and so I kept detailed notes, but first and foremost, I made the road trip because I hoped it would help in some way to redirect my life into a more interesting direction. As well, I had wanderlust after years of not traveling while raising a young family, and I just wanted to get away for a while, as I’d done 19 years before on essentially the same motorcycle. Lying in that hammock on my 41st birthday – a small moment of peace in the tumult of a family vacation – the prospect of a long, solitary motorcycle road trip seemed fabulous.Others have written about their trip – there are some websites that include journal entries in a number of different languages, but I don’t know of any books actually being written.

Q: In ZEN AND NOW, you list all the items you’re traveling with, including your laptop. Did you use it much? Pirsig was interested in how our culture relates to technology, but he was writing in a mechanical age. Does Zen and the Art have anything to teach us about computer technology and mobile communications—digital technologies which were not much a part of the world Pirsig is writing about?
A:
I turned on my laptop every evening, but most nights found that all I did was download photos from my camera. More often than not there was no Internet connection at the cheaper places where I was staying. I also took a Palm Pilot that I never used, and a cell phone that never worked. They just all took a back seat to the basic mechanics of traveling. The irony is that it turned out to be very similar to Robert Pirsig’s trip – I wrote postcards and relied on payphones – but if Pirsig were traveling now, he’d have taken a far better computer and relied on it much more. He was a computer geek before the term was coined, and one of the lessons of Zen and the Art is that we could spare ourselves much of the confusion and frustration caused by technology by understanding it better and learning how to use it properly.

Q: The trip described in Zen and the Art originally happened in 1968. Yet, in 2008, it’s striking that you encountered a similar level of friendliness and hospitality on your trek that Robert Pirsig did on his. How do you explain this?
A:
People don’t change that quickly, and the values of the American Midwest are as strong today as they were 40 years ago. As well, I was riding a motorcycle and that’s about the best icebreaker there is on a journey. Not everyone approves, but if you’re polite and respectful of others, most will go out of their way to assist a traveler.

Q: You have a few mechanical and logistical problems along the way with your motorcycle, Jackie New, like a leaky seal and broken GPS. Mechanically, what was your biggest obstacle along the way?
A:
Actually, the biggest mechanical obstacle was myself. I have a good understanding of engines but I’m not a good mechanic – I tend to be clumsy and impatient, completely the opposite of Robert Pirsig and the lessons he passes on in Zen and the Art. I packed the wrong service manual and I forgot some important tools that I really needed, but the old bike got me to San Francisco in one piece. I had to take a few days there to replace her clutch, brakes, tires and suspension, but by then I was relaxed and methodical and did a much better job of the preparations so I could get home again.

Q: It seems almost uncanny that throughout your trip you stumbled upon “characters” who would be right at home on the pages of Zen and the Art. You meet Lilli at the Tom Tom Motor Inn, who puts pride into maintaining a cleaner and cheaper hotel than the chains, and a precocious boy named Landon Cheatham, who advises you to drive along the coast, which is too beautiful to miss. Do you think your eyes were open to people who embodied the ideals of Pirsig?
A:
I was rereading Zen and the Art as I travelled west, so I was more than usually aware of Robert Pirsig's ideals, but on a motorcycle, your eyes are always more open to everything, good and bad.

Q: Although you’re a motorcycle enthusiast, you do acknowledge the danger associated with it. It might seem improbable these days that a father taking his son out on a machine with such a reputation would be the basis for a bestselling book. Do you think the attitude toward motorcycles has changed since Pirsig took his son on their journey? If so, why?
A:
I do acknowledge that there’s an intrinsic danger in riding motorcycles, but there’s also a danger in driving cars, or working a chainsaw, or chopping carrots. In the wrong hands and under the wrong circumstances, motorcycles can be horribly dangerous machines, but they become exponentially safer with education, experience and the right attitude. I honestly believe that I’m safer on my motorcycle than I am in my car, and that’s mostly because I’m far more aware of my surroundings on a bike; I’m not distracted by the radio, or by drinking coffee. As for the attitude of others toward motorcycles, these days oftentimes they’re expensive luxury items, ridden by retirees with time and money on their hands, so they’ve become far more respectable. Which is ironic, really, since these people often buy them specifically because they want to buck respectability, if only for a Sunday afternoon ride.

Q: You did a lot of research and reporting on Robert Pirsig’s life before and after Zen and the Art. Did you learn anything about him that gave you more insight into his philosophy?
A:
I learned a lot about him, including that he is a man who has faced many challenges in his life, and grown to overcome them. He lost his mind; his marriage collapsed; his son was murdered. He’s far from perfect, yet he’s essentially a good man who diagnosed and wrote beautifully about the root causes of society’s overall dissatisfaction. And although he achieved both fame and fortune, he didn’t really want either. He just wanted – still wants – to be understood.

Q: Robert Pirsig is famously reclusive, and yet ZEN AND NOW contains a great deal of fascinating biographical information. Did he co-operate with your research?
A:
Yes and no. I wrote to him a number of times and he always replied promptly and courteously, though never at any length. He read two early manuscripts and commented on them briefly. Toward the end, when I was asking some tough questions, he was clearly fed up with the whole thing and provided only minimal answers intended to shut me off. I don’t blame him – he’s spent the last three decades being hounded by people and he just wants his book to stand on its own. As recently as last year, he had to call the police to forcibly remove a stalker who’d come over from Europe to find him. He asked me to be careful in my book to not reveal details that would help such people, and I was happy to comply with that.

Q: Have you ever met Robert Pirsig?
A:
No, though I still hope to one day, if only to shake his hand and thank him for his inspiration. At the very beginning, he wrote to me that “the best place to meet an author is on the pages of his book,” and he’s probably right. But he may change his mind about meeting me. When he learned that Knopf was to publish ZEN AND NOW, he wrote me a very supportive letter of congratulations and told me that “Zen and the Art also took four years to write … so now you know what it’s like.”& A

Q: You write: “Just as readers who like motorcycles are attracted to Pirsig’s book, so are readers who appreciate Zen. And both sides are often disappointed that Zen and the Art isn’t really about either motorcycles or Zen. But then Pirsig states this clearly up front.” If the book is not about motorcycles or Zen, and it’s inspired generations of Americans, what—in your opinion—is it about?
A:
Boiled right down, Pirsig’s book is about recognizing that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well; don’t rush through things but take the time and effort to consider life and how to improve it for yourself. This philosophy combines elements of Zen principles with the ancient Greek search for betterment, and gives it all a modern context to add relevance to our lives. And when I thought about it and applied it to my own busy life, filled beyond the brim with work and family, I found it’s as relevant now as it was 40 years ago.

Q: In ZEN AND NOW, you’re fixated on reaching San Francisco and the end of the journey on your forty-second birthday. Why was this so important to you?
A:
I’d finished reading Zen and the Art on my 41st birthday and promised myself then that I’d celebrate my next birthday in San Francisco, at the end of this road trip. I really needed to know that I could still achieve something, which everyone I knew interpreted as being a midlife crisis. Then shortly before leaving on the journey, I’d stumbled upon Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which I’d read years before and forgotten about. In that book, it was claimed that the number 42 was the meaning of life, so it all kind of seemed fitting that reaching my goal in San Francisco on the day I turned 42 would show me the meaning of life. And when I told people this, they knew it was a midlife crisis.

Q: The trip you take in ZEN AND NOW seems to coincide with some of your own reflective thoughts on being a husband and a father. How has your world changed, if at all, since you wrote the book?
A:
Most things haven’t changed that much, although I think I’m a more careful mechanic now. I’m still busy at work and home – too busy, really – and always appreciate everything I have; I lived and worked as an aid worker in Africa for a while, and that was the real life-changing experience that taught me to value everything around me. The major change, though, is that I shook off the discontent that I’d blamed on my wife and children for tying me down and restricting my ambitions; this journey helped me to recognize that my various anxieties were really more of my own making, and I’m now more satisfied with being a husband and father. In fact, it gives me a great deal of satisfaction that just wasn’t there before.

Q: You’re a motorcycle and auto editor and writer for the To ro nto Sta r. What’s next for you now?
A:
I still love taking motorcycle trips, both short ones and long ones, and there are more of those planned. I’ve put Jackie New, my dirt bike from ZEN AND NOW, into semi-retirement and bought a Harley-Davidson Low Rider, which is considerably more comfortable but still fun to ride. I bought a cruiser mostly because I want to start travelling with one or the other of my sons, and I don’t want to rush an experience like that. My eldest son, Andrew, is now 11 years old, the same age as Chris Pirsig in Zen and the Art, and we have a week-long trip on the bike to New York City planned for this summer. Then next summer, in 2009, Andrew and I want to ride to Los Angeles – I want to show him the prairie and the desert and the mountains, which he’s never seen, and share the moments with him. Perhaps there’ll be a second book in that trip.

Q: If you had to pick one favorite moment or experience from your trip, what would it be?
A:
When you read ZEN AND NOW, you see that each day of the journey has high points and low points – it was never boring. But if I choose just one moment, it would be reaching Hwy 101 in California, just after crossing the state line from Oregon. It was the closing of a circle for me: 19 years before, I’d ridden my dirt bike on a giant loop from home that had taken me all the way to Alaska, and then I’d headed south all the way to San Diego and into Mexico. That was the trip I’d remembered so fondly while lying in the hammock, and that was what I’d wanted to prove to myself could be repeated. When I reached Hwy. 101 a few miles east of Crescent City, probably 5 minutes before finally seeing the Pacific Ocean, I was closing the circle and back on the old road of my youth. As well, I was just a day away from reaching my goal on that overloaded old dirt bike and it all finally seemed possible. I didn’t know, of course, what would happen to me in the California redwoods the next day.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Assured and poetic. . . . A sort of Cliff’s Notes version of the dense original, and as much of a biography of Pirsig as Richardson was able to piece together. . . . An enjoyable read. . . . Richardson is quite meticulous in describing the thoughts, sensations, even the superstitions many motorcyclists experience while riding.” —The Los Angeles Times“A harrowing account of the toll that themaking of one man’s masterpiece exacted not only on himself but on those around him.”—TheWall Street Journal“Most notably for fans of the original, Zen and Now pushes the story forward, through Richardson’s correspondence with the interview-averse Pirsig, his editor, his ex-wife, and a second son, Ted.” —The Boston Globe“Richardson’s strong narrative thread results in a page-turner that does right by the original. Zen and Now is sure to inspire a new generation of riders and readers to pick up Pirsig’s book and take to the open road in search of quality.” —Vince Darcangelo, Rocky Mountain News“Fans of Pirsig’s cult classic should read Richardson’s book if they want the true story of the author. . . . Richardson digs deep to unearth the motives behind his tormented mentor’s search for quality while embarking on a search of his own. . . . [Zen and Now is] an engrossing tale recounted with a journalist’s attention to fact and an adventurer’s appetite for the enlightening surprise.” —Scott Driscoll, Seattle Post-Intelligencer“A good read. . . . Although Richardson is on the trail of Pirsig, this book is as much about his own status in the universe and who he is as a father and a human being. It is charmingly written, honest to a fault and as unpretentious as Pirsig’s book was the opposite. Zen and Now invites the reader along on several levels; Richardson’s research into Pirsig and his life is impeccable and the book is full of all kinds of interesting little nuggets.” —Ted Laturnus, Toronto Globe and MailZen and Now is a story worth telling, about a journey worth sharing–an entertaining, inspiring, and rewarding read.” —Neil Peart, bestselling author of Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road

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