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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: in reality a discourse on quality.

I was doubly disappointed to hear that Robert M Pirsig had died today.

  • First because his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance was one of the most influential that I read as a teen ager in the 1970s.
  • Secondly, I was extremely disappointed to hear his book, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ described as a story of a motorcycle journey: It is nothing of the sort.  Nor is it really about motorcycle maintenance or Zen.

In fact, “Zen and the Art…” is really a discourse on quality, what quality is, the search for quality, and how that search for the perfect sense of what quality is, drove a man insane.  It is also an exploration of the philosophical thinking about quality, from the Ancient Greeks to the modern day.

The motorcycle maintenance, the relationship with his son, the quality of the roads and the weather and the rides are all merely a carrier for discussions about qualities of things, or experiences and how they are perceived.  A precursor to the search for quality itself.

It is also a tale, true to the author, of how that search lead to a mental breakdown and beyond.

Two simple examples of the discussion of quality come to mind from early in the book.

At the start the author and his son are travelling with friends.  The author is on an old British bike (the model never mentioned).  His friend and their wife on a new BMW R60.  The friend’s handle bars start to slip.  The author says, simple, I will make a shim from an old aluminium can (A common trick that even I used when I rode motorcycles).  His friend is aghast.  He must go to a BMW dealer and get the proper shims for his bike.  A cut up aluminium can cannot be right.  He wants quality in assurance of the right part from the manufacturers.  The author, or course knows that the quality comes from the functionality, not the source of the component.  An aluminium shim cut from an old coke or beer can works perfectly well.  And you can’t ever see it.

In another example, the author is disappointed to enter a garage where the mechanics are listening to pop music whilst working.  In his mind, you cannot concentrate on the feel of a task, the sense of being one with the machine, developing that empathy of the machine talking to you, knowing how to sense when a nut is tight enough (but not too tight) with that noise in the background.  (I know what he means)

If there is one insight I have from the book, it is that you can define quality.  It is simple, ask for the qualities of the object.  However, ‘Quality’ as an abstract concept is much, much, harder to define.  Why, because there is no point of reference.  That is why, asking people to define quality is a trick question.  The answer to which is, to refer to the qualities that you are looking for.

The emotional breakdown that Phaedrus (the author before the breakdown, as we reach the second part of the book) goes through and the effect on himself and his family is tragic.  In real life Robert Pirsig’s son, Chris, who shared the journey, was stabbed to death in a mugging in 1979.  This is talked about in the later editions of the book. I only discovered this because I replaced my original that I gave away, heavily thumbed, to a German scientist I met and with whom I discussed the book at length.  I think I am on my third copy, the 40th anniversary edition.

Given how much “Quality” is talked about as an abstract in business and management, sometimes without the depth of thought behind it, to me this book cuts through all of that.  It would do much good were more people who talked about quality were to read, and study, this book.

To me this is a book to be studied.  Ignore the title, or take it with a pinch of salt.  Zen and the Art is possibly the finest modern discourse on quality you can read.  It is not short.  It is not about motorcycle maintenance, nor is it about art or Zen.  It is a quality read in many senses of the word.

Thank you Robert M Pirsig.  May you rest in peace.