Now and again, when I have a free lunchtime, I usually find myself wandering into the same local bookshop to peruse the latest sci-fi/fantasy reads. I’d like to say this daily quest involves navigating poorly-lit stairwells and fathomless basement catacombs – but it’s all rather mundane really with everything stacked neatly into their various expanding sub-sections and plenty of lighting, air conditioning and coffee. It seems that ‘speculative fiction’ (a term I hate) has been a real hit during Covid.
However, there’s one category that hasn’t faired so well and that’s the much overlooked and unloved PHILOSOPHY section. Over the years, I’ve seen this particular area of the bookshop slowly dwindle in size until it was eventually moved to spot you’d really only find if you were lost. Even an attempt to rebrand it as ’SMART THINKING’ hasn’t seemed to work – and so these vertically-aligned relics of the past remain untouched, gathering dust until the nearest flickering basement light bulb eventually splutters out.
So imagine my surprise when, one day, I noticed a new* book on the shelf adorned with the words ’Nietzsche and Hiking.’ It seemed like a curious mix of topics so I immediately bought it and was immediately hooked. Neither completely all about philosophy, and not quite all about outdoor orienteering, it’s really a rather honest account by an author who was so inspired by Nietzsche, he very nearly imploded.
And it’s not hard to see why.
Way back when I was a student studying English Lit, we were given a brief introduction to what was called the ‘Premiere League of Philosophy’. We were told two things: firstly, that we were ’ships in the night’ and would probably never return to this subject again because this topic was, of course, naturally reserved for full-time philosophy students – and the second was to read two texts and comment on one of them. The first was Plato’s account of the beginning of the Universe which was absolutely crackers (honestly, you should give it a whirl) – and the second was ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’. Thinking back, I wish that second text had come with some kind of health warning because I only gave it a cursory read and I was smitten: it didn’t seem to contain any of those long drawn-out logical arguments the other books seemed to bang on about PLUS it was always being referenced by my favourite artists. What wasn’t to love?
What swiftly followed was a real desire to read everything Mr. ‘Dynamite’ had written, without much context and with certainly very little understanding. I soon became an aphorism-reciting cliche and definitely not the kind of person you’d want to meet at parties and casually ask ‘So, how’s life?” It all reached a very predictable conclusion like a scene from ‘Withnail and I’ which I’ll simply leave here with the truism that there’s nothing like having to pay your first month’s rent to make you reconsider your life choices.
Anyway, I wanted to celebrate John Kaag’s book because I don’t think too many people have written such an honest account of how a philosopher can have such a dramatic affect on the psyche of a reader. We’ve certainly seen that scenario played out in various plays, books and film scripts – but not quite in real-life, and probably not with academic professors. The only book that has a similar approach in it’s sensitivity in this area is Yalom’s ‘When Nietzsche Wept’ although that work is entirely fictional which makes Kaag’s confessional all the more thought-provoking. And even if the biographical element doesn’t appeal to you, Kaag makes light work of explaining some of the more complex ideas and characters in this period of Continental Philosophy. It’s the kind of introduction I wish I’d read back when Guinness was only a pound a pint at the student bar – although, perhaps, that’s also another reminder that there’s sometimes more to life than spending your day thinking about things.
The allure of Nietzsche is that once you start listening to his arguments, the questions never quite go away. We should thank Kaag for giving us a personal insight into where those questions might take you – even if that’s to places many of us would fear to tread.
John Kaag – Hiking With Nietzsche.
*New-ish. It was published in 2019.
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