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Motorcycle Zen: Persig’s Bike


Robert Pirsig’s legendary ride transcended the realm of mere motorcycle storytelling. The bike that brought him there will now be enshrined at the Smithsonian.

If a list were made of the most famous books relating to motorcycles, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance would be on it. Arguably, among non-motorcyclists, it’s the most famous of the lot. Zen has been called the most widely read book on not motorcycles but philosophy and compared in an original New Yorker review to Moby Dick, which is itself a dense read. 

Robert Pirsig (1927-2017) published the iconic book in 1974 and since then it has never been out of print with some five million copies published in 27 languages. But it wasn’t easy. 

Pirsig was rejected by 121 publishers before the ink finally hit the paper. That alone must have called for a tremendous helping of Zen. 

persist motorcycle from Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance studio shot

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is based on a return trip from Minnesota to San Francisco Pirsig took with his son in 1968 aboard a small twin cylinder 1966 Honda Super Hawk. The bike was stored for decades in the family’s garage before being restored and gifted by Pirsig’s widow Wendy to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. 

Joining the bike in the hallowed halls will be Pirsig’s leather jacket, maps, shop manuals, tools and toolboxes, a signed first edition of the book and other gear from that trip. 

“Bob’s philosophy explored human values, and he aimed to show how quality is actually at the center of all existence,” Wendy Pirsig says of her husband. “It seems consistent with this focus on quality that his motorcycle collection joins the nation’s exemplary history museum at the Smithsonian.” 

The curator of transportation at the museum Paul Johnson says the little Super Hawk “is the most famous forgotten motorcycle in American history and literature.” 

Johnson is undoubtedly correct and many other museums and collectors would have felt the same way about a motorcycle, a ride, and Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book that transcended genres. 

• Canadian Biker Issue #346


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