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Robert M. Pirsig, whose novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance became a million-selling classic after more than 100 publishers turned it down, has died. He was 88 and had been in failing health.
Pirsig’s publishing house, William Morrow, announced that he died Monday at his home in South Benwick, Maine.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was published in 1974 and was based on a motorcycle trip Pirsig took in the late 1960s with his 12-year-old son, Chris. The book’s path to the best-seller list was long and unlikely. It began as an essay he wrote after he and Chris rode from Minnesota to the Dakotas and grew to a manuscript of hundreds of thousands of words. After the entire industry seemed to shun it, William Morrow took on the book, with editor James Landis writing at the time that he found it “brilliant beyond belief.”
Pirsig’s book ideally suited a generation’s yearning for the open road, a quest for knowledge and skepticism of modern values, while also telling a personal story about a father-and-son relationship and the author’s struggles with schizophrenia. A world traveler and former philosophy student, Pirsig would blend his life and learning into what he called the Metaphysics of Quality.
“But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality,” he wrote. “But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.”
The book was praised as a unique and masterful blend of narrative and philosophy and was compared by a New Yorker critic to Moby Dick. Pirsig, a native of Minneapolis, also wrote the sequel Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.
Pirsig is survived by his wife, Wendy; son, Ted; daughter, Nell Peiken, and son-in-law, Matthew Peiken, along with three grandchildren. Chris was killed by a mugger in 1979 and later editions of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance would include an afterword about him. In 2006, the author told The Guardian that his son had not cared for the book.
“He said, “Dad, I had a good time on that trip. It was all false,'” Pirsig explained. “It threw him terribly. There is stuff I can’t talk about still.”
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