On the trail of Robert Persig's motorcycle

 Its purple paperback cover with that half lotus half spanner illustration familiarly adorned tables and shelves in bookstores and homes. I seldom spot the book these days, and I always wonder if students read it anymore. There was a time when I would re-read it at least once a year, just to get the ideas and philosophy in it clearly in my head. Does it have the reading buzz it once possessed in colleges and friends’ circles? Why, I had nearly forgotten it myself until that is, when I came across a most interesting book a few weeks ago that brought Persig’s cult book back to memory.
I found it in a pile of remaindered books: Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Persig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Published by Knopf in 2008 and written by Mark Richardson, the book is another true story of a fan motorcycling his way through the same territory that Persig once did. But with this difference: Richardson is in search of Persig; he wants to know whatever happened to this maverick philosopher and how he came to write that bestselling book that has sold more than six million copies to date.  
It turns out — not surprisingly — that Persig has been a recluse and has worked at remaining one all these years. He’s in his 70s now, and lives in New England. If you recall, apart from Motorcycle Maintenance, he wrote only Lila. Persig considered that follow up the more superior work, and though it has sold more than half a million copies, it didn’t become as bespoke. Mark Richardson wrote to Persig asking for an interview and the reply came at once: “The best place to meet an author is on the pages of his book,” Persig wrote kindly, turning down the request. “Anywhere else is a disappointment, believe me.”

It was in the late 60s that Persig and his 11-year-old son Chris took that motorcycle ride on an old 28 horse power 305 cc Honda Superhawk CB77. Before that Persig had spent a long time in a mental institution, undergoing shock therapy. It nearly destroyed his memory. He had been a teacher, and had begun a philosophical quest that nearly drove him insane. Recovering from that spell of madness, he toured the country with his son riding pillion, meditating on art, philosophy, values and technology.
As Richardson uncovers the story behind this phenomenal, one of a kind book, talking to friends and family, he also meets fans of the book. They prefer to call themselves pilgrims. He also learns that Chris was stabbed to death in 1979 outside the Zen centre in San Francisco. He was only 23. The author talks to Nancy, Persig’s wife, and discovers how they met and what really happened to Persig in those intense years.
They met in 1953 when editing the college’s literary magazine. In 1958, he got a teaching position at Montana State College where he specialised in rhetoric and advanced technical writing. It was here, Richardson tells us, that he began “to develop into an academic radical, withholding grades from students.” It was also here that another teacher casually commented to him one day, while watering her plants, “I hope you are teaching quality to your students.”

Persig asked himself:  “Quality — you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is…Obviously some things are better than other things…but what’s the betterness? What the hell is quality? What is it? And this began his spiral into madness. He became obsessed. His inquiry took him further and further away from what everyone else was teaching, thinking or saying. He felt utterly alone. He was on sleeping pills, and once even urinated in the living room. He sat in a puddle of waste, his fingertips blistered by cigarettes that had burned to the end. His wife found him that way one day. This began a period of two years of depression and clinical insanity. Here he was given shock treatment, partly wiping out his memory.

When he began writing the book, and telling his story, the memory slowly came back. He would go to bed at 6 pm. Get up at 3 am and write until 8 am when he had to leave for work. He did that for two years and it broke the marriage and his family. The book when finished was 200,000 words long! One hundred and twenty two publishers turned the first few chapters down. But one editor, Jim Landis at William Morrow, had faith in the book and in January 1973 Persig sold it for a mere $3,000. Over the next year the book was pared down to its final 130,000 words. Today it still sells 60,000 copies a year.
Published on April 15, 1974, with an author photo at the back, the photo was soon dropped along with the book tours and signings Persig had begun — and this increased the mystery and aura behind the author of this strange, exciting book. The book was recognised as something new. The eminent culture critic George Steiner wrote: “Told by the blurb we have here one of the most unique and exciting books in the history of American letters, one bridles at the grammar of the claim and at its routine excess. The grammar is irreparable. But I have a hunch that the assertion itself is valid.”  

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