Hiking With Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26)
At age 19, John Kaag was into Friedrich Nietzsche “the way young people can be into writers and artists: utterly,” said Scott Parker in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. So he left his Pennsylvania home and headed to Basel, Switzerland, where the iconoclastic German philosopher had been a professor before fleeing to the Alps to climb, think, and write. Kaag followed the thinker’s footsteps into the mountains seeking a Nietzschean lightning bolt of inspiration; he found frostbite and a near brush with death. Two decades later, Kaag—now a philosophy professor—decided to revisit the Alps with his wife and young daughter and reflect on Nietzsche’s enduring lessons. Improbably, from that physical and intellectual uphill slog, he’s managed to produce “a book with verve.”
Hiking With Nietzsche “occasionally feels like a forced march,” but it’s more often “an invigorating excursion,” said Heller McAlpin in NPR.org. Scrambling up rocky slopes in worn sneakers, Kaag reflects on Nietzsche’s radical theories about the tension between our wild impulses and our desire for order. When Kaag visits the chalet where Nietzsche wrote his seminal works, “two vivid portraits emerge,” as we learn that the 37-year-old author faced early challenges similar to his tormented idol’s. But what, Kaag wonders, can Nietzsche teach him now that he is no longer a brooding teenager?
The answers, fortunately, transcend self-help platitudes, said Becca Rothfeld in The Atlantic. Though Kaag doesn’t embrace Nietzsche’s rejection of “the herd,” he “isn’t entirely immune to the seductions of Dionysian extremity.” He admits he sometimes still regrets having a child and wonders, when looking at a family photo, if he’s turned into “a grinning domesticated animal.” Yet he decides that such inner debates are the stuff of life, and to avoid them would be to avoid engaging with the gift of existence. It’s a soundly Nietzschean conclusion, and “a confirmation that philosophy thrives when it provides an antidote to the wholesome doldrums of sanity.” ■