First published in 1974 by William Morrow, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values was a spectacularly popular philosophy book that was loosely autobiographical, tracing a father-son motorcycle trip and flashbacks to a period in which the author was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Its thesis was that quality is the basis of reality, and that this understanding unifies most East Asian and Western thought. Pirsig called this system of thought the Metaphysics of Quality.
In the New Yorker in 1974, George Steiner wrote, "This is indeed a book about the art of motorcycle maintenance, about the cerebral concentration, about the scruple and delicacy of both hand and ear required to keep an engine musical and safe across heat or cold tarmac or red dust. It is a book about the diverse orders of relation--wasteful, obtuse, amateurish, peremptory, utilitarian, insightful--which connect modern man to his mechanical environment ... the analogies with Moby Dick are patent."
In announcing Pirsig's death Morrow called the book "an enduring landmark of American literature that has inspired millions of readers."
In 1991, Pirsig published his second book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, which traced a sailboat journey taken by two fictitious characters along the East Coast of the U.S.
Pirsig graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1950 with a degree in philosophy, and then traveled to India for a year and graduate study in Hindu philosophy at Benares Hindu University. He first became aware of Eastern philosophy when stationed in South Korea in the Army. He also enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. After the success of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig helped found the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, and then lived reclusively. A skilled mechanic, he performed repairs in his home workshop. He taught himself navigation in the days before GPS, and twice crossed the Atlantic in his small sailboat, Aretê.
A private memorial service will be held. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to be made to the academic institution or other charitable organization of one's choice