South Berwick Man, Author of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,’ Dies at 88

Apr 25, 2017

The author of the popular philosophy book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” died Monday at his home in South Berwick. Robert Pirsig was 88.

Before Robert Pirsig got the idea for a book, he got the idea for a title. In a BBC interview from 2012, Pirsig said inspiration came to him while he was riding a motorcycle with a friend.

“He was recalling a book called ‘Zen and the Art of Archery.’ At the time he was talking about it, his engine was running and black smoke was coming out. And I thought to myself, ‘He doesn’t need a book on “Zen and the Art of Archery.” He needs a book on “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”’ And the title just captivated me. At that time all I ever had was a title. It’s very strange to hear of an author starting a book with the title. But that’s exactly what happened in this case,” he said.

Pirsig had studied philosophy in college and was influenced by Asian culture he was exposed to while serving abroad in the army. Initially, he envisioned “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” would be a short article. But that article kept growing. When Pirsig took a motorcycle trip in the late 60s with his 11-year-old son, as he told NPR in a 1974 interview, he decided to create a book that weaved the story of the trip with his philosophical views.

“Frequently, people get the idea that Zen is something apart from the everyday world, and it never is. And I’m trying to bring that point home with the use of motorcycle maintenance. This is not an exotic activity, at least normally considered. This is not going and sitting on a mountaintop or contemplating the petals of a flower. This is just going in and getting your hands greasy. And yet that’s still Zen,” he says.

The book explores the philosophical concept of “quality,” which Pirsig called both “indescribable” and “the source and substance of everything.” His writing struck a chord, and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” became a best-seller.

Pirsig became reclusive as he worked on the follow-up book “Lila,” which was published 17 years later. In a 2005 interview with NPR, Pirsig said he had written all he wanted to say. He just hoped his philosophical views would be accepted.

“I may be ignored because I’m too hard to understand, or because I’m thought of as some kind of a kook without being seriously considered. I’ve read a lot of negative reviews, but in none of those reviews have I seen one single critic show me where the ‘Metaphysics of Quality’ is wrong,” he says.

For the past 30 years, Pirsig lived in South Berwick in southern Maine, where according to reports, he kept to himself. Since it was published in 1974, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” has sold more than 5 million copies.