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

By Mark Richardson

Knopf, 274 pages, $25

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)

By Tom Vanderbilt

Knopf, 402 pages, $25

There’s something quintessentially American about the idea of being behind the wheel, out on the open road, amber waves of grain flashing by as we drive from sea to shining sea.

Just look at how many songs from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll were about exactly that: the freedom that comes from sliding the key into the ignition and heading out on the highway. A person may never act on it, but just having a functional automobile in the driveway meant you weren’t stuck in any one place. The possibility of escape was always there.

The freedom of the road and its ever-present opportunities are some of the major themes of Robert Pirsig’s highly influential 1974 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book describes a journey of discovery, comparing and contrasting the misery of one character not understanding how to maintain an expensive, high-maintenance motorcycle with the serenity of another who rode a simpler machine that better matched his personal diagnostic and repair skills.

In Zen and Now, author Mark Richardson follows the cross-country route described by Pirsig from Minneapolis to San Francisco, hoping to stumble across a few of those elusive truths along the way.

Richardson is far from the first to follow Pirsig’s path through the American West. Indeed, tales of “Pirsig Pilgrims” lend an extra layer of mythic credence to the author’s journey. What is it about Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig, and the road itself that grabs hold of so many of us? What is the elusive “quality” that seems missing in so many lives? Is it something that can be sought out in the peace and solitude of mountain vistas, conversations with fellow travelers in roadside grills, and the patient adjustment of valve clearances in field conditions? These are among the fundamental questions explored by the book. As with any good philosophical exploration, a lot is left for the reader to decide.

Zen and Now is a delightful account of not only the unique American fascination with road trips as rites of passage, but also of why certain stories and personalities weave themselves into our cultural landscape. The idea of losing oneself in the great wide open is one thing, but life on the road can hold somewhat less romance closer to home.

That’s the subject of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). The flip side of the freedom of being behind the wheel is traffic jams, keeping a wary eye out for speed traps, road rage, and an incessant stream of irritations.

A basic problem, as author Tom Vanderbilt points out, is that while driving actually involves a complicated cluster of tasks performed concurrently or consecutively, most of us give it little if any thought after scoring that first drivers license.

Add in a few of the less neighborly aspects of the human condition, and there is little wonder why a slow, bumper-to-bumper commute can be so vexing. A nasty Sargasso Sea of “me, me, me!” attitudes, impatience, and rude gestures (because everyone who drives faster than us is a freaking maniac and everyone who drives slower than us is a dang idiot) that we have little choice but to mire ourselves in on a nearly daily basis. Isn’t there a better way to get from one place to another? If so, why aren’t we doing it?

That’s the problem that Vanderbilt tries to answer in Traffic. He consults experts on driving — including specialists who teach the kind of techniques employed by racecar drivers — as well as traffic officials to gain a sense of the factors that play into what happens to us behind the wheel. The results are somewhat surprising.

False perceptions and overestimations of one’s own driving ability, according to Vanderbilt, and many of the adaptations we make to frequently-traveled roads can actually be counterproductive.

Sometimes being the nice guy or gal on the road is not the best thing for traffic flow. And, of course, most of us receive little if any feedback on our day-to-day driving skills, which is not a good thing if improvement is a goal.

Reading Traffic might not necessarily make you a better driver (it is available as an audio book as well, so you can listen while you drive), but it will definitely provoke some thought on what is actually going on when the SUVs, sports cars, big rigs, motorcycles, and slug bugs all ease on down the road together, in harmony or not.

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