Critical Context (Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance owes its great popular success to its appeal in a number of areas—as travel adventure, psychology, and, above all, philosophy. It marches undaunted through philosophical ages and locks horns with some of the greatest minds in the history of ideas. It asks the big questions about life and is not afraid to admit that it does not necessarily have the answers. Young adult readers especially appreciate the confidence the book emanates toward the individual: One knows Quality when one meets it, and no one can appreciate Quality for someone else. The effect is to free the individual from received opinion, from the shoulds and should nots of Western life, and from pressure to achieve goals and attain “success.” The book does all this without preaching by suggesting another philosophy that undercuts the hold that the Western value system has on Americans.
The book was widely used in the 1970’s as a college text in English composition classes, because it deals specifically with the problems Pirsig experienced as a teacher of writing and those his students experienced as they tried to create Quality writing. Since the 1970’s, composition as a professional discipline has gone through more radical experimentation and upheaval than that which Pirsig reports, but the book continues to be important because the issues it illuminates remain today. In students’ frustration in trying to write as society and teachers demand, they can appreciate learning about the theoretical discussion that lies behind what they do in the classroom. Similarly, they learn that what they do in the classroom—or, more important, the attitude with which they do it—may be symptomatic of how they conduct their lives. The book finally is optimistic, for Quality is available to everyone.