Todd Gitlin, a sociologist and the author of books about the counterculture, said that âZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,â in seeking to reconcile humanism with technological progress, had been perfectly timed for a generation weary of the â60s revolt against a soulless high-tech world dominated by a corporate and military-industrial order.
âThere is such a thing as a zeitgeist, and I believe the book was popular because there were a lot of people who wanted a reconciliation â even if they didnât know what they were looking for,â Mr. Gitlin said in 2013 in an interview for this obituary. âPirsig provided a kind of soft landing from the euphoric stratosphere of the late â60s into the real world of adult life.â
Mr. Pirsigâs plunge into the grand philosophical questions of Western culture remained near the top of the best-seller lists for a decade and helped define the post-hippie 1970s landscape as resoundingly, some critics have said, as Carlos Castanedaâs âThe Teachings of Don Juanâ helped define the 1960s.
Where âDon Juanâ pursued enlightenment in hallucinogenic experience, âZenâ argued for its equal availability in the brain-racking rigors of Reason with a capital R. Years after its publication, it continues to be invoked by famous people when asked to name a book that affected them most deeply â among them the former professional basketball player Phil Jackson, the actors William Shatner and Tim Allen, and the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel laureate.
Part road-trip novel, part treatise, part open letter to a younger generation, âZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenanceâ unfolds as a fictionalized account of a cross-country motorcycle trip that Mr. Pirsig took in 1968 with his 11-year-old son, Christopher, and two friends.
The narrative alternates between travelogue-like accounts of their 17 days on the road, from the Pirsigsâ home in Minnesota to the Pacific Coast, and long interior monologues that he calls his âChautauquas,â after the open-air educational meetings at Lake Chautauqua, N.Y., popular with self-improvers since the 19th century.
Mr. Pirsigâs narrator (his barely disguised stand-in) focuses on what he sees as two profound schisms. The first lay in the 1960s culture war, in which the âhippiesâ rejected industrialization and the technological values that had been embraced by the âstraightâ mainstream society.
The second schism is in the narratorâs own mind, as he struggles in his…