When I took Freshman Composition at Azusa Pacific University back in 1986, we were required to read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. I wasn’t much of a reader back then; if a book or magazine didn’t have pictures, I wasn’t much interested. That changed when I read this book. In my first reading, I was most interested in how the book describes Pirsig’s motorcycle journey, crossing the country with his son. In subsequent readings, I became more interested in the metaphysical wanderings that Pirsig chronicles, the thought that took place on his motorcycle ride.
I kept returning to this book, rereading it, always surprised to find out how different ideas in it would resonate with me at different times in my life. And, as I kept reading the book, I kept dialing in one specific passage:
Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial. It’s the whole thing. That which produced it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test’s always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.
The paragraph resonates with me because I value peace of mind. I’m grateful that, at a young age, I learned that serenity requires ongoing maintenance, as does a motorcycle. I laminated the quote and put it in my wallet; it’s literally been with me every day since I was 18 years old. I also write about the passage on pp. 158-59 of my book, The Descent into Happiness. (In fact, I mimicked the organizational scheme of Pirsig’s book when I wrote The Descent.)
When I teach Freshman Composition now, I require my students to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to experience it both as a student and as a professor. When we discuss the work in class, we talk about the value of serenity, how we must struggle to maintain it.
Robert Pirsig died this week. Several friends of mine knew that Pirsig was important to me, and they shared their condolences. One friend gave me a copy of his obituary that appeared in The New York Times.
I’m grateful that Pirsig wrote the book, grateful that William Morrow published it (after 121 other publishers rejected it), and grateful for the peace of mind it has provided me with for my entire adult life. The photo at right shows notes that I wrote in it – the first book I ever read cover to cover.