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Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

by Mark Richardson

With all due respect to the automotive section of the Toronto Star, who could have foreseen that its editor, Mark Richardson, would write a book so fine and strangely moving as Zen and Now? Like many other contemporary travel narratives, this one has a gimmick – er, “framing device.” To mark the 40th anniversary of the 1968 journey that Robert Pirsig described in his improbable 1974 bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Richardson sets out on his own bike to retrace the route.
    In following the trail from Minnesota westward across the top of the U.S., then down into northern California, Richardson reconfirms what all serious readers of travel literature know: that the process of getting somewhere is more important than the destination.
    Zen and Now is a splendid travelogue even though the picturesque landscape it describes is also suffocatingly dull, and many of the people we encounter along the way seem only slightly more complicated than mollusks. (“We chat because there’s nothing else to do,” says one local.) Yet Richardson treats both the terrain and its prisoners with quizzical and nonjudgmental sympathy, expressing himself in deceptively straightforward prose whose tone teases us with understatement.
    When folks in such localities as Montana and Idaho ask him why he has aligned himself with the Pirsigophiles who call themselves “Zen pilgrims,” Richardson replies that he must “swallow hard and try to explain Pirsig’s relevance in the new millennium.” Fortunately, he does no such thing. Instead, he demonstrates his own talent as a writer. So skillfully, for example, does he insinuate set pieces into the story – one on deflecting sexual temptation at a desolate motel, another describing Jimmy Carter’s visit to Sudan, where Richardson worked for an NGO – that they never become a drag on a book that is fast-paced yet also graceful and contemplative.