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Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance [Hardcover]

Mark Richardson
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

9 Sep 2008
Zen and Now is a vivid chronicle of a journalist’s heartfelt and determined journey to reconnect with a beloved American classic.

In 1968, Robert Pirsig and his eleven-year-old son, Chris, made the cross-country motorcycle trip that would become the inspiration for Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a powerful blend of personal narrative and philosophical investigation that has inspired generations.

Among the millions of readers to fall under the book’s spell was Mark Richardson, who as a young man struggled to understand Pirsig’s provocative and elusive ideas. Rereading the book decades later, Richardson, now a journalist and a father of two, was moved by its portrayal of Pirsig’s complex relationship with Chris and struck by the timelessness of its lessons. So he tuned up his old Suzuki dirt bike and became a “Pirsig pilgrim,” one of the legion of fans who retrace the Pirsigs’ route from Minneapolis to San Francisco. In following this itinerary over the lonely byways of the American West, Richardson revisits the people and places from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, pondering the meaning of Pirsig’s philosophy and the answers it may offer to the questions in his own life. Richardson’s dogged reporting also gives new insight into the reclusive writer’s life, exploring Pirsig’s struggle with mental illness, his unwanted celebrity, and the tragic, brutal murder of Chris in 1979.

Published to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of Pirsig’s original trip, Zen and Now is a stirring meditation on a classic work and a passionate inquiry into the lessons it continues to teach us in the complex and bewildering world we inhabit today.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 274 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group; 1 edition (9 Sep 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307269701
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307269706
  • Product Dimensions: 24.1 x 16.7 x 2.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 552,506 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Saved by the Second Half. 19 Jun 2009
By Stewart M TOP 500 REVIEWER
Basing a new book on a much loved (or at least best selling) original is always going to pose some problems. How far can an author go in his "homage" to a book before the new work becomes plagiarism or worse, parody? In this regard the author of Now and Zen sails very close to the wind in the opening sections of his book. Both books start early in the morning - 8.30 in the original, 9.30 in the new - on hot days, both books say that it's not a problem on a motor bike and within the first two pages both riders have seen red-winged blackbirds. Some of the phrases used in the new are so redolent of the old that they caused me to pause mid-paragraph - "Change, not good, not bad. Just change." It seems that the author is straining to use a voice that is not his own, and in the first section of the book at least, the rhythms and structure of the original seem to overwhelm anything he has to say.

As the book progresses this becomes much less noticeable - this may be due to the authors forced deviations away from the path of the original "Zen Journey" cased by change, and also be a growing understanding that many parts of the original book were changed for "rhetorical purposes". You cannot be a slave to a pathway that in fact did not exist.

Many of the characters from the original book are visited along the way, although the Persig's themselves are only present through the letters they have written. The death of Persig's son Chris, killed in a street assault, robs the book of a valuable witness to the original journey.
It is the second half of this book which rescues it from the concerns mentioned above. The more the book progresses the better it becomes. In the end we are given a much clearer vision of both authors - Richardson and Pirsig.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Zen, indeed 21 Mar 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I bought this as a companion to the original novel, to help me gain an insight into WHY, and it was handy for the paper I was writing. From the beginning to the end, you can't put it down. Twists abound...
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Zen und jetzt... 2 April 2010
A solo trip following Persig's journey which had the author doing some of his own seeking in turn. Journeying "alone" for long periods can ask a lot of oneself, as anyone who has undertaken a long trip on a motorbike may recognize - I personally having gone through substantial portions of my life while on the road on a bike.

This form of travel remains a form few will undertake; Erica Jong said once "Solitude is un-American" (make that un-Western), and may well be, when combined with the art of solo motorcycle riding and our own social nature, tough in ways that may surprise.

Pirsig and many others have dealt with this mode of solo travel for the restive mind. I believe that for each of us the experience of such travel is different, possibly a reflection of our unique selves. This form of travel allows some of us to get to know ourselves better, something that is not always easy, but a good thing nevertheless. Mark Richardson too seemed to find himself following in the tracks of the journey chronicled by Pirsig all those years ago.

I enjoyed it, finding echoes of similar and different trips, solo and with my lady, and a life with more questions than answers. It may not be everyone's cup of tea but for those who enjoyed Pirsig's trip it's more than a little interesting.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 13 Sep 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  23 reviews
47 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Finally, an Interviewer Shares insights on Pirsig's First Family 10 Jan 2009
By Diana - Published on
Unlike several of the other Amazon reviewers, when I read "Zen and Now" I found that Richardson understands that "Zen and the Art" was about much more than a motorcycle trip. However, he felt that it would be pointless for a third party to recreate Robert Pirsig's bestseller. What Richardson does do is to fill in many gaps in our understanding of Pirsig himself. In other words, this is literary biography. And, as literary biography, I give this book high marks.

What's new about "Zen and Now"? Until now, how many readers knew that Pirsig had two sons? In Richardson's text we learn about Ted Pirsig, the son (close to Chris Pirsig's age)whom Robert Pirsig never mentions in his writings or interviews. Why is that? And why does his son, Ted, refer to him as his "ex-father"? We also learn about the mother of Ted and Chris, Nancy James, a gracious hostess and creator of a wonderful restaurant in Minneapolis, an active member of the Zen Center on Lake Calhoun. She was the woman in the shadows who looked after Robert when his mental breakdown pushed him close to edge. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" would never have been written if she had not cared for him and held the family together during his breakdown.

In an interview with Richardson, Nancy James presents a legitimate counterpoint to Robert Pirsig's assertion that she and Pirsig's father, Maynard, were cruel to force him into mental health care that destroyed "the genius with the 170 I. Q." If they thought that the author was a danger to himself and others how could they not intervene?

We Westerners, myself included, tend to put Zen Buddhism on a pedestal where it is safe from rational criticism. However, Nancy James shows us what it is like to be told that her thoughts and instincts lack "value" because she has not achieved enlightenment like her esteemed partner.

Furthermore, I've never understood how readers can brush off the fact that Chris Pirsig was in tears for most of trip. His vantage point was blocked by his father's back. (I would have like Richardson to tell us more about Chris's long struggle with mental illness after the trip as he does with Ted.) As a parent,I see Pirsig's treatment of his son as callous. In other words, as Robert Pirsig himself might concede, "the great man has feet of clay." Like many of the great men we idolize, Pirsig is imperfect. He searches for "quality" and the "good" because he sees that it is lacking in parts of his own life.

In the "bad old days," readers were taught to ignore the context in which great works of art were created. Thank goodness those days are over. "Quality" and "Good" can be examined in a humanitarian context as well.
31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An Inquiry Into Cluelessness 4 Oct 2008
By A. Slizewski - Published on
Like Mr. Richardson I'm a huge fan of Pirsig and motorcycling and bought this book when I saw a review of it in the WSJ. I was deeply disappointed. Zen and the Art ... works because of the explorations into various facets of philosophy and identity. It's not really about a motorcycle trip, it's about exploration. Richardson's book explores nothing. There are a few random stabs into his family relationships and past experiences but they are far from profound and seem tacked on. All you learn about the author from this book is that he's whiny and prone to making spurious correlations. He never comes across as understanding Zen and the Art ... You'd think from reading Richardson that having to camp was high on the list of human miseries. That, and having to drive with the sun in your eyes. Real hardships, those.

As a travel narrative writer he fails badly. I had to force myself not the skip the sections where he's describing which way the creek he was driving next to turned or how the water in this creek made a gurgling sound. In Pirsig's book such descriptions served as launching points for something else. Here there's no context for this, it's just bland, the-sky-was-deep-blue type, description. And there's a lot of it.

I did not know much about Pirsig's history or the story surrounding the writing and aftermath of Zen and the Art ... and those parts were interesting and seemingly well-researched. Those parts were less than half the book, unfortunately. I may have expected too much from Zen and Now as writing anything even close to Zen and the Art... is a high bar indeed.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Take Your own trip 15 Sep 2008
By J. Lillig - Published on
I really enjoyed this book, in fact it exceeded my expectations. I had been looking for some back story to ZMM that would include more information about the original trip and characters. With this book I found all that I was looking for and it's own story. Which I feel does a good job of adding to the original work. (Not the philosophy portions so much but more the narrative story.)

I have been a fan of ZMM for 13 years and longed to take this trip myself. After reading this book much of the draw from the original has dissipated. It is not that I don't like ZMM anymore. But my view of the original ZMM is less romanticized in my mind. Furthermore the volume of research put into it's creation answers a lot of the questions that lingered in my mind.

The author is a skilled writer and the book flows along well.

If you enjoyed the original you will enjoy this too.



P.S. In the end I might not want to take the same trip as Mark but it makes me want to take my own trip again.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not what I expected 31 May 2009
By P. Wung - Published on
Mark Richardson warns you from the beginning, this is not a rehash of the seminal book by Robert Pirsig. In fact, it took me a long time to figure out what it is. I am still kind of puzzling over it. It is kind of a travelogue, of Richardson's trip re-tracing Pirsig's route through American west. But it is not a faithful re-tracing. It is a loose history of Pirsig, his family, whom we met before and it is a closer chronological history, but not too closely. It is a visit with the people from the book, but you don't really get to know them that much better, more than the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance book but probably less than what people want.

It is also a personal journey for Richardson, a kind of middle aged reassessment of his life since he'd read ZMM, but not too close, because he kept the reader kind of at arms length and then kind of intimately.

On the one hand, it gives everyone a good followup of what had happened with Pirsig, his son Chris and Ted, his ex-wife Nancy. As well as what had happened to the Deweeses, the Sutherlands, and a few other characters.

It also goes much beyond the end of that book and it moves to Pirsig's life after unwanted fame. The breakup of his marriage, the evolution of his second marriage, the birth of his daughter Nell, and the writing of Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. That part of the book was very interesting and it was the sort of gossipy and nostalgic story telling that the fans of ZMM want.

What it lacked was the scholarly, but for that you can get Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A very good and complete scholarly study of ZMM itself and it also have lots of great bibliographic information.

So what is this book about? I wasn't sure about it until I was half way through the book, that may have to do the weakness of the writer or the reader. I think it was a case of both. It seems nothing with ZMM could be had easily, it took my close to 100 pages to get into ZMM and it took me half the book to get into this book.

This is a very personal journey by one of us, just a regular guy who happens to write very well and his struggles with growing up, with dealing with his own mortality and his fascination with ZMM, Pirsig, the concept of quality, the magnetic attraction of the road, and doing it on a motorcycle. After all, the idea blended the most seductive elements of the 60's and 70's nostalgia: motorcycles and Zen, along with the timeless elements of the American rugged individualism: a story about the road and the taciturn strong silent type.

In many ways, Mark Richardson succeeded. I enjoyed his stories about Pirsig, his own visits with the people from the book and his own adventures on the trip. But in certain ways he failed because parts of the book failed to grab my interest because it was a slog at times to get through the book.

In the end, I got through it, and I enjoyed the journey.

In reading over the past few paragraphs, I realize that I had not performed my duties as a reviewer very well. I did not give concrete proof or significant arguments with regard to the book, but this is the kind of book it is. You need to read it and figure it out for yourself. Indeed, this was the way ZMM was for me initially. So, if you were fascinated by ZMM and wanted some more background on the people depicted, this is a great reference. If fascinated overstated your reaction to ZMM, then I would stay away from this book.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Motorcycle travel with a twist of Zen 28 Mar 2009
By Jerry Waxler - Published on
When I first read Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," I felt somewhat bewildered. I loved his passion, I loved the intensity of his relationships and his beliefs about life. And yet, I felt he was in over his head, trying to build sanity on shaky ground. He desperately tried to shore up that foundation with his ideas of quality, but if he succeeded in solidifying the foundation, I for one was never convinced. I was prepared to let "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" slide into my hazy past, when I recently came across a memoir, "Zen and Now" by Mark Richardson, which offered to give me a guided tour of the earlier book. I jumped at the chance. I'm glad I did. Now, after reading "Zen and Now," I feel vastly more understanding of Pirsig's book, and I had a lovely journey with Richardson at the same time.

"Zen and Now" is also a motorcycle ride, following as closely as possible Pirsig's original route, woven with a fun, intricate, and entertaining mix of Richardson's own observations about life, motorcycles, small town American life, and a few other things. This interwoven structure is one of my favorite things about the book. Oh, one more thing. It was a sort of recounting of Richardson's own mid-life crisis, and in a clever twist, his angst mirrored the soul searching pressure that drove Pirsig to hit the road. The book turned out to be a splendid meditation on creativity and problem-solving, sanity and insanity.
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