Published in the United States in 1974 (and in Italy by Adelphi in 1981) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig is a book which should take pride of place in the library of all motorcyclists who enjoy a certain type of freedom, of mind and of thought, which only a motorbike can offer.
It is an extremely peculiar book, first and foremost because of how the author came to write it: Pirsig, an American writer and philosopher - as well as a former child prodigy with an IQ of 170 – joined the Seventies after a period of personal crisis during which he was even committed and subjected to electroshock treatment. Between various odd jobs, he began his philosophical and spiritual research, which accompanied him throughout life, and then a small publishing house almost as a dare published his Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, which was a sensational success.
It was reprinted five times in a month, and that was just the beginning: over the decades, his “Zen” has been a million-copy long seller all over the world, a level of fame that with time and through translation has shed a new light also on the entire motorcycling world, especially in the United States where bikers were almost only associated with petty criminal gangs. The film Easy Rider dates back to 1969 while the narrative reportage Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs by Hunter S. Thompson reached bookshops in 1967, but their echo resounded throughout the Seventies.
Pirsig’s book tells the tale of a journey which the author decided to take and it is both the story of a traditional journey, where “Sometimes it's a little better to travel than to arrive”, as well as a very intelligent, very perceptive and very delicate diary of the relationship that the author establishes with his travel companion, his son Chris, who was 11 at the time.
Some of the most famous pages are those dedicated to advice on how to set off and tackle a long journey. Today, his list may appear a little outdated but it is nevertheless a precious one, because it provides a thorough tale of another era and of another way of enjoying motorbikes. “Motorcycle Stuff. A standard tool kit comes with the cycle and is stored under the seat. This is supplemented with the following: A large, adjustable open-end wrench. A machinist’s hammer. A cold chisel. A taper punch. A pair of tire irons. A tire-patching kit. A bicycle pump. A can of molybdenum disulfide spray for the chain. (...) Impact driver. A point file. Feeler gauge. Test lamp”.
The tale, however, - and this is the novelty - is dotted with philosophical considerations and digressions on the work of mechanics and, specifically, on the maintenance of a motorbike; so, as we leaf through, we realise that we are not just reading the story of a journey on an old bike, but also a light essay - we’d currently refer to it as pop philosophy - within everyone’s reach, which uses riding a motorbike and knowing how to repair it as allegories to tackle the ups and downs which we are destined to encounter during our lives.