Invisible Ink: No 173 - Robert M Pirsig

 

In the roll-call of student summer reading certain volumes stand out, including Desmond Morris's body language phenomenon The Naked Ape and Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull. To those can be added a volume by Robert M Pirsig that snuggled its way into every hitchhiker's hand-crocheted body satchel. Unlike Bach, whose books were like being hit with a wiffle bat full of pot-pourri, Pirsig is the real deal. Born in 1928, this precocious university student was eventually expelled for studying too hard, after growing bewildered by the choice of multiple hypotheses in his chosen field, biochemistry. Overwhelmed by the limitations of science, he tackled Eastern philosophy instead, spending time in India before returning to a US college.

So filled with anxiety that he was physically sick before teaching a class, he suffered a nervous collapse in 1961 and was diagnosed with depression and paranoid schizophrenia, spending time in various institutions. He was treated with electro-convulsive therapy and emerged to write a volume that entered the Guinness World Records book for receiving 121 rejections by publishers. It is probably the most unlikely book ever to have become a smash hit.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance appeared in 1974 and perfectly matched the confusion of the times, selling five million copies worldwide. It recounts a 17-day trip made by motorbike from Minnesota to California with Pirsig's son and friends. The bonding journey is punctuated with philosophical discussions on a variety of cerebral matters, mainly a theory known as the Metaphysics of Quality, the idea that the knife-edge of experience is only ever found in the present. Zen became the biggest-selling philosophy book ever, despite Pirsig pointing out that it bears no resemblance to "that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice", adding: "It's not very factual on motorcycles, either."

So, what did it have? The answer lies in its skilful blending of two personality types, the romantics and the mechanics. Realising that pure philosophical discussion would not resonate with increasingly disillusioned US readers of the Seventies, who had witnessed the Kent State shootings and the collapse of the Nixon regime, Pirsig welded his arguments to something more tangible – engines and travel – and created a survival guide for the soul. He wrote the book at night after spending each day churning out computer manuals, so the practical and the abstract complemented each other. The world changed but Zen remains a classic.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living