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Motorpsycho Nightmare

Robert Pirsig’s insufferable cult novel about philosophy and bike maintenance turns 50.

· 17 min read
Motorpsycho Nightmare
Author Robert Pirsig and his son Chris in 1968. Flickr.

Fifty years ago, in 1974, William Morrow and Company published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, and it has since become America’s all-time bestselling philosophical work. The book is a lightly fictionalized account of Pirsig’s own life, and he uses a 17-day motorcycle trip as a sort of framing device for the whole thing. The book was marketed as nonfiction, and it is basically a true story.

I didn’t read it when it first came out because, at 16, I wasn’t especially interested in either nonfiction books or philosophy. Later, in the 1980s and ’90s, people began referring to the book as “philosophical fiction” or as an “autobiographical novel,” and both terms now appear in the book’s Wikipedia entry. Even before the end of the 1970s, it had already become a publishing phenomenon and cultural touchstone. By the 1980s, you couldn’t walk into an American bookstore without seeing a pile of copies, usually stacked next to Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (published two years later) or Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (published three years earlier), two other road-trip books popular with countercultural readers of that era.

Its popularity endures even today. On’s Kindle store, the book is listed as the third bestselling work on Zen philosophy and the third bestselling travelogue. I finally bought a used paperback copy in the 1990s, but I did not get around to reading it until recently, as the book approached its 50th birthday.

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