He was a child prodigy with an IQ of 170. He skipped several grades, graduated from high school at age 14 and was just turning 15 as he entered the University of Minnesota to study biochemistry. The possibility of endless hypotheses in science left him befuddled, and he lost interest in his studies, thus earning expulsion from the university.
He enlisted in the Army and served two years in South Korea, returned to the United States and earned a B.A. in Eastern Philosophy, did post graduate work in philosophy and journalism, taught creative writing in Montana, had a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression.
Pirsig's first book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) is a philosophical novel dealing with the metaphysics of quality. In the introduction, Pirsig cautions that the book shouldn't be associated with orthodox Zen Buddhism. "It's not very factual on motorcycles, either," he writes.
It is, instead, an account of a 17-day motorcycle road trip from Minnesota to California with his son Chris, and for awhile, with a couple who are close friends, John and Sylvia Sutherland.
John represents the Romantic view of life, being in the moment and not delving into the details. He doesn't learn to maintain his motorcycle and become frustrated when things go wrong, often having to seek professional help. The narrator represents the Classical view of life, seeking to understand how things work and immersing himself in details. He uses rational problem solving skills to diagnose and repair problems with his older motorcycle.
Pirsig's theory is that a balance of the two approaches will reward a person with a much higher quality of life.
The book holds the Guinness world record for a best-seller that was initially rejected. Some 121 publishers said no before William Morrow & Company finally decided to publish it. The book has sold more than five million copies in multiple editions.
Lila (1991) is a second philosophical novel framed on a sailing trip down the Hudson River and a chance encounter with a woman very near a nervous breakdown.