I’ve never successfully read anything written by Nietzsche. Each time I restarted Beyond Good and Evil, it was clear to me that I wouldn’t finish. I decided to break the cycle, and tried Hiking with Nietzsche instead, to try and get acquainted with the philosopher’s most important ideas. The book is an account of the life and work of the revolutionary Friedrich Nietzsche, woven into a deeply personal account of a trip John Kaag takes to hike the route through the Swiss Alps that Nietzsche often hiked himself.
Even though I read the book to learn about Nietzsche’s life and ideas, it wouldn’t serve this review to write about them. There’s no shortage of discussions and interpretations of Nietzsche, and there’s not much to say that couldn’t be found in a YouTube video or a quick Google search. In my opinion, what makes the book really stand out is John Kaag’s writing. Allowing his ideas to rub shoulders with Nietzsche’s could come across as self-indulgent, but while reading the book I got the entirely opposite feeling. Kaag maintains a beautiful sincerity throughout the book, which I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I read it. What was it about his writing that made it so believably genuine? How could he write so much about himself without once seeming self-absorbed?
I think a big part of the answer to that is vulnerability. Kaag is candid about doubts and emotions that most of us have, but would never admit to, probably not even to ourselves. He writes openly about self-destruction, failed marriages, affairs, not wanting to be a parent, and his strained relationship with his father. These admissions of deep imperfection establish a bond of trust with the reader. He has nothing to lose, and every unpleasant thing we could know about him is out in the open. His openness makes him easy to trust, and evokes an empathy that’s otherwise hard to feel when reading about someone else’s life.
If Kaag has nothing to lose, he also writes like he has nothing to gain. He has obviously mastered Nietzsche’s ideas, and while reading Hiking with Nietzsche, one can imagine how much work and time he must have put into acquiring this command. He remains extremely humble about this astonishing expertise, attributing his fluency in Nietzsche’s ideas to an unhealthy, almost agonising obsession with him, as if it lies entirely out of his control. This modesty is a refreshing change from the usual emphasis of expertise through titles, accolades, or displays of achievement, and illustrates the other crucial component of the sincerity he evokes.
As a biography and as a memoir, Hiking with Nietzsche does its job brilliantly. John Kaag illuminates Nietzsche’s lofty ideas and the very fragile human behind them, painting an elaborate picture through his own nuanced experiences. The book is a great reminder that in prose, as in life, vulnerability and candour build much more trust and empathy than careful facades.