First published in 1974 by William Morrow, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig was a spectacularly popular philosophy book that was loosely autobiographical, tracing a father-son motorcycle trip and flashbacks to a period in which the author was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Its thesis was that quality is the basis of reality, and that this understanding unifies most East Asian and Western thought. Pirsig called this system of thought the Metaphysics of Quality.
In the New Yorker in 1974, George Steiner wrote, "This is indeed a book about the art of motorcycle maintenance, about the cerebral concentration, about the scruple and delicacy of both hand and ear required to keep an engine musical and safe across heat or cold tarmac or red dust. It is a book about the diverse orders of relation--wasteful, obtuse, amateurish, peremptory, utilitarian, insightful--which connect modern man to his mechanical environment ... the analogies with Moby Dick are patent."
Amazingly Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by 121 publishers before Pirsig found one that fully appreciated his work. "The book is brilliant beyond belief," Morrow editor James Landis wrote before the book was published. "It is probably a work of genius and will, I'll wager, attain classic status." Landis, of course, was right. The book has sold more than five million copies worldwide and is "an enduring landmark of American literature that has inspired millions of readers," Morrow said this week when it announced that Robert M. Pirsig had died on Monday at the age of 88. His masterpiece is available from HarperTorch ($7.99, 9780060589462).