Monday, February 18, 2019

The Eyre Affair - a pop culture, classic lit carnival ride

It took me until the age of forty to discover Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece and signature work Jane Eyre, despite the achievement of a Master's degree in literature at the age of thirty-two. And, now it's taken me sixteen years after its publication to discover a delightfully wacky, post-modern, pop-culture-infused, meta-fictional extrapolation of the adventures of young Jane, our nineteenth century riot grrl. Jasper Fforde's first installment of the Thursday Next novels, The Eyre Affair is a true joy for fans who spice their love of classic literature with a taste of popular culture.

The basic scoop on Fforde's literary detective novel is that Thursday Next is a LiteraTec in an alternative 1985 Great Britain where time travel is possible, England and Czarist Russia are still fighting the Crimean War, and people can slip in and out of novels. For lovers of literature, Fforde's setting is appealing for the reverence and significance that all-things-literary are paid, with a civilization somewhat ruled by literary societies whose very public debates are the pulse of the times. The Eyre Affair is a world that critics have described as perfect for fans of Hitchhiker's Guide author Douglas Adams if Adams had been a Ph.D. in literature. (He wasn't, was he?).

Anyway, I recall hearing of this fun read years ago, and I'm sure it was on my nightstand or bookshelf at some point, though I never got around to reading it. But that's OK, because I found it, and I was not disappointed. Now, I'm diving back into the original work to revel in the comparisons. Jasper Fforde is a quirky literary dude who has had great fun with one of English's literary treasures. He's the kind of author whose playful ideas lead me on to other works, such as an academic work from scholar Erica Hateley, who explored the satire and popular culture at the end of Thursday's first adventure.

Definitely worth your time.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

In Praise of Helicopter Parenting

Helicopter parent.

It's such a loaded term with cynical pejorative connotation, especially in the world of educators. We look with contempt at those parents who quite literally care too much. That is the general consensus anyway. Though I'd add a bit of a qualification. As an educator and an administrator I have always noted: "Give me a helicopter parent any day of the week over a parent who just doesn't care." I've seen both sides -- and the painful side of both sides -- and the risks of disengaged, careless, or even resentful parenting are just too damaging. For, as Elie Wiesel made clear  back in 1986, "The opposite of love is not hate. It's indifference."

Now, it appears, there is a bit of validation for helicopter parenting. According to an opinion piece in the New York Times by Pamela Druckerman "the bad news about helicopter parenting" is "it works." Now, I would imagine most critics would immediately key in on the word "works." How exactly does it work, and at what cost to the child? We've all seen and heard ridiculous examples of over-parenting that either coddles kids to a point of bratty, privileged incompetence or pushes kids to anxiety-riddled mania and incapacity. The stories of over-zealous mothers contacting college professors about grades or employers about interviews and even raises are not entirely urban legends. There are parents that unhinged. However, more active, and even "authoritative," parenting is actually linked to more successful, balanced, and productive kids with fewer social problems.

The most effective parents, according to the authors, are “authoritative.” They use reasoning to persuade kids to do things that are good for them. Instead of strict obedience, they emphasize adaptability, problem-solving and independence — skills that will help their offspring in future workplaces that we can’t even imagine yet. And they seem most successful at helping their kids achieve the holy grails of modern parenting: college and postgraduate degrees, which now have a huge financial payoff. Using data from a national study that followed thousands of American teenagers for years, the authors found that the offspring of “authoritative” parents were more likely to graduate from college and graduate school, especially compared with those with authoritarian parents. This was true even when they controlled for the parents’ education and income. The benefits aren’t just academic. In a British study, kids raised by authoritative parents reported better health and higher self-esteem. In the American study, they were less likely to use drugs, smoke or abuse alcohol; they started having sex at older ages, and they were more likely to use condoms.
Now, I've never really advocated for helicopter parenting, even as I seek to understand it and compensate for it. That approach seems to reflect the Baby Boomer style which sought to protect their Millennial kids from taking all the risks and making all the mistakes they did. I much prefer the structured and supportive but more free-range parenting style associated with Gen Xers who want their children to have the freedom and develop the resilience they did as children in the '70s and 80s. At the heart of it is the idea of loving them, but not obsessing over them. It's caring for them by teaching them and expecting them to care for themselves ... and others. It's also about trusting them to be the human beings we raised, even if that means knowing they will make mistakes and occasionally disappoint us and themselves. That's when they'll need the love and support.

Just love them.


Friday, February 1, 2019

Groundhog Day - “An Existential New Year



It’s not about monotony -- it’s about re-birth.

Twenty-six years ago, an unassuming little film about a cantankerous weatherman on the most random of holidays became a pop culture phenomenon that ingrained itself in our consciousness. The title became a metaphor for reluctantly acknowledging the dailiness of life. With the silly story of Phil Connors waking up everyday in Punxsutawney, PA, with Sonny and Cher singing “I’ve Got You Babe” on an endless string of February seconds, Groundhog Day entered the lexicon as a way to describe the drudgery and repetition of daily life. But the movie was never simply about the mundane nature of existence. It was always about self-awareness and second chances and reinvention and hope.

Let’s face it, by February 2 the New Year’s resolutions are fading, the fitness centers are back to the regulars, and we’re all bogged down in the drudgery of winter. These moments are ripe for a bit of pop culture existentialism, and the quirky film from Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin puts that long cold winter, the odd little holiday, and the repetitiveness of daily life in perspective. Watching the story of a disgruntled weatherman pondering the absurdity of a weather-forecasting rodent provides a second chance at mid-winter self-reflection and re-invention. The conceit of the film is not only the ridiculous holiday but also the inexplicable weirdness of Phil Connors’ predicament.

The film Groundhog Day is actually a wonderful primer for the wisdom of existentialism, and when I taught the philosophy in my college literature class, I would often lead or conclude with a viewing of Bill Murray’s brilliant portrayal of a man trying to bring some sense of meaning to a life that seems nothing short of absurd. Clearly, the idea of living the same day over and over again in an unfulfilling, dull, mundane place and repeating the seemingly mindless tasks of a pointless job is portrayed as a curse and a cruel joke, and that realization is at the heart of existentialism. Life makes no sense. Phil spends many years in disgruntled fashion viewing his life as exactly that, a cruel meaningless joke of an existence.

However, the movie shifts when Phil considers his situation as an opportunity and a second chance at reinvention with the opportunity to get it right. Of course, Phil’s initial reaction to his epiphany of a life without consequences is to indulge his most base fantasies. It’s understandable -- who wouldn’t at least consider that? He truly seizes the day, drinking to excess, smoking indiscriminately, gulping coffee and pastries, manipulating women, and even robbing an armored car. Of course, the freedom and control he ultimately achieves is freedom from and power over those primal and materialistic urges. For even unrestricted access to hedonism and debauchery apparently becomes boring after a while.

Initially, Phil’s attempts at betterment are jaded with ulterior motives -- he learns French simply to seduce his producer Rita. Later on, however, his attempts to change become about improving his quality of life. A pivotal, but often overlooked, moment in the film is when Phil is sitting quietly in the cafe reading, and he notices a piano playing in the background. Rather than simply enjoy the music, he seeks to develop the ability to create such beautiful sounds and immediately begins learning piano, offering his piano teacher “a thousand dollars if we could get started today.” He also masters other art forms like ice sculpting, but most importantly he learns deeply the details and hope and dreams of the people in his life.

The film is more than an entertaining romantic comedy, and numerous writers have explored how Rubin and Ramis incorporated key elements of existentialism into the film, notably the idea that in a life devoid of meaning, it is up to man to create it for himself. The film draws on Nietzsche’s idea that existence is a cycle of eternal recurrence, and it incorporates insight from Albert Camus who theorized in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” that despite the apparent misery of the subject’s situation, he actually imagined Sisyphus happy. Sisyphus, as you may recall, was the Greek king whose punishment by the gods was to push a huge rock up a steep hill only to see it roll back down as he neared the top. Camus framed Sisyphus’ situation as a reflection of the human condition -- stuck in a repetitive cycle which would seem absurd to the outsider. When he “imagines Sisyphus happy,” he shifts the narrative from judgment and punishment to liberation and empowerment. Both Sisyphus and Phil transition through the act of acceptance -- embracing their inescapable dilemma and finding joy in the meaningless absurdity.

Groundhog Day is a film with a message -- each of us will wake up again and again to the same existence that at times seems pointless. The only point is that you have the rest of your life to make it exactly what you want it to be. Bringing meaning to our daily lives was a focus of the numerous American writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow whose poem “A Psalm of Life” advised us that “neither joy, and not sorrow is our destined end or way, but to act that each tomorrow find us further than today.” The point is progress; the goal is getting better. What F. Scott Fitzgerald called Gatsby’s “Platonic conception of himself” was simply the eternal quest for the ideal, for striving to become our own best selves. Life is an endlessly repeating opportunity to improve. In Bill Murray’s role as Phil Connor, we can find a second chance at New Year’s resolutions and an opportunity to, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “live the life you have imagined.”



Tuesday, January 22, 2019

What is Art?



At the age of forty-nine, I am getting into art appreciation, and I'm messing around with ways to live more artfully, looking at and pondering and reading on and writing about art. As a newly developing art novice and critic, I'm visiting galleries and exhibits and pondering what I like and what I might say about art when looking at it. On a recent visit to the Art of the State 2019 exhibit at the Arvada Arts Center in Colorado, I had time to ponder 154 different pieces of art and determine how I feel about it. Certainly some of the more abstract pieces like the one made of inner tubes may give viewers pause. What’s the point? And is it art?


The piece is a work of found art entitled "Well Hung Butyle Remains" by Nederland artist Jessica Moon Bernstein-Schiano who seeks to spotlight the significance of discarded objects. In college I would have called this junk art, and I was always a bit mystified by artist friends who practiced it. As an older person, I am now appreciating it a bit more, even if it's not something I would hang on the wall at my house. Though I'm not opposed to the idea of abstraction in art; in fact, the types of art I'd be inclined to curate and purchase tend toward the ab-ex view like Ellen Moershel's piece "Valdez," which is acrylic on canvas, or the naturalistic "Magwa" by Mai Wyn Schantz who painted the oil on stainless steel and made her statement on nature and technology by emphasizing through silhouette what is not there.

 

So, I'm exploring the visual and textural and structural arts and asking myself what I think about them. A great resource for getting into the experience of art is a book I recently checked out called The Art of Looking by Wall Street Journal art critic Lance Esplund. I appreciated Esplund's story of how as a child he'd received a book about the great masters such as Rembrandt, and he knew that he was supposed to appreciate their works, but he simply wasn't really moved by them. It wasn't until he first saw the work "Howling Dog" by abstract-expressionist Paul Klee that he discovered a painting, a piece of art, that affected him in a deeply emotional, even spiritual, way. At the same time I was reading Esplund's story, I was also working through a fascinating piece of art reflection called The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art by Mark Rothko. His views opened my eyes to the multiple ways we can experience art.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Spirituality

We began the new semester - and 2019 - with a staff activity reminding us about the eight "Sources of Strength" that we are emphasizing this year at school. As one of the SOS leaders, I was asked to share the definition of one strength from the wheel and then provide an explanation of how that operates in my life. Here are my comments on spirituality:

“Spirituality is practiced in many ways, but at its core we consider what gives a sense or purpose and connection to our spirit. Thankfulness is a profound way to practice spirituality together, no matter what our cultural heritage and/or spiritual tradition.”

To me, spirituality is our connection to something beyond the physical world, and it can be what gives our lives meaning and purpose. I went to Catholic school and was an altar boy, so early in my life my, spirituality was my faith. But even then I actually practiced a more nature-based spirituality. Occasionally, I would skip mass to go climb the bluffs in my hometown overlooking the Mississippi River, and I’d spend time just being in nature. When I moved to Colorado, it got even better with the mountains, for to me Summit County really is God’s country to me.

So, being an English geek, I’ll conclude with what I think is Henry David Thoreau’sdefinition  of spirituality: I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.




Saturday, January 5, 2019

Tucker Carlson, Rod Dreher, & the soul of the GOP

So, over at the American Conservative, editor Rod Dreher created a bit of a social media stir the other day with his column, "Tucker Carlson For President." Dreher was responding to Carlson's opinion piece at Fox News which used Mitt Romney's op-ed challenging the President as a spring board for his explanation of what's really wrong with America. You can watch Tucker's entire bit below. The problem for Dreher on the social media front is that Carlson's bit came just days after he had explained how he felt no moral obligation to let more poor people into the country (ie. migrant caravan and asylum requests) because, well basically, "it makes our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided." As could have been expected, the backlash came with advertisers pulling support in opposition to comments that sound pretty racist. Tucker's comments are pretty indefensible, though he'll stand by them; the problem is that by focusing on Tucker's immigration comments, the message of his column gets lost. And Dreher explains, "First, TC is no racist-misogynist. Second, 'Tucker Carlson For President' was my headline over a blog post praising his criticism of GOP market fundamentalism & elitism. My way of saying "I want a Republican presidential candidate who says these things."

In all honesty, Tucker's opinion piece and Dreher's support of it is pretty interesting to me - I genuinely like and agree with many points that these men make, specifically problems with the dissolution of the American family, the stubborn stagnation of wages, and the frightening rise in opioid and cannabis use. Truly, Carlson has outlined some very specific challenges in contemporary American society, and he has synthesized a pretty significant problem for the Republican Party in its unwavering support of the economic libertarianism. Granted, he does have a Gladwell-esque tendency to oversimplify hugely complicated problems that result from personal choices and the nuances of our political system. The other problem is Carlson's general glib, frat-boy reputation and history that makes it hard to take his criticisms of the Republican Party seriously. That's especially true because he peppers his comments with subtle side-bars blaming the Democratic Party for all the nation's social ills and asserting "Socialism is a disaster" because of, ya know, Mao and Venezuela.

That said, Carlson and Dreher are not wrong in their criticisms of contemporary society and our two major political parties. The problem is expecting that the Republican Party will somehow be able to maintain its identity (and long standing platform and political affiliations) as it takes on the political positions and the tough work of addressing the problems and challenges faced by what Carlson calls "normal Americans."

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Be Awesome - make your 2019 Extraordinary

"Make your lives extraordinary."

If you are of a certain age, you certainly recognize those words from the Robin Williams film Dead Poet's Society. So many Gen Xers and older Millennials fell in love with that film in that moment, and in the back of our minds, we always hope to take "Oh, Captain, my Captain's" advice. As I've noted before in previous posts, we are a people who admire and value excellence. That's why our athletes are held in such esteem - they remind us of the human potential, especially when they push the limits of what we think is possible. And, we like to tell ourselves that we can do that too. Like the lyrics from the song by Alesso, "Everyday people do everyday things, but I can't be one of them."

The YouTube site People Are Awesome is a record of those non-everyday people doing extraordinary things. It's a great place to watch and take inspiration.



So, don't just watch. Do. Be awesome in 2019.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Buy Me Coffee? Support the Writing you Read

I access a great deal of free content while surfing the internet. But I also understand and appreciate the need for pay walls on some sites. Content is a product and a service, and for that reason the creators deserve compensation for the work. To that end, I just made contributions to two sites that regularly provide information for free - Wikipedia and The Guardian. Neither of the sites charges for  content, but they do occasionally request donations to help maintain production. If you are a regular consumer of information from a place like Wikipedia, (and who isn't?) I'd recommend throwing a little cash their way. I also really like the model used by the Guardian, and I wish more news organizations like the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times would allow payment on an a la carte basis. 

So, in that spirit of giving, if you are enjoying the content on this blog, perhaps you will consider making a donation to support my site by "buying me a cup of coffee," via the payment button at the upper right corner of my blog. I am hoping to expand my writing and content curation to a larger and more individualized site in the future, but it will carry regular costs. So, any financial support you can offer will be much appreciated.

Happy New Year.
 

Monday, December 31, 2018

French Piano Handstand - Living Artfully in 2019

I guess I'm a New Year's Resolution kind of guy.

Looking back at my writing notebooks and blog posts from Decembers and Januarys past, I notice a tendency to make big plans for the "next stage" in my life - writing more, better fitness, learning a language, cleaning up my files at work, etc. Alas, most of my years look the same, and that's OK because I'm pretty happy and in a good spot professionally, personally, physically, and emotionally. And, yet I still have more I want to do both professionally and personally, especially in the field of writing and in the world of the arts. One of the areas I'd really like to grow is in The Arts, and one way I attempted to live more artfully - have more art in my life and all I do - last year was to try learning to play the piano. That's gone fairly well, culminating with the purchase of a keyboard for Christmas this year. I've always been a music fan and aficionado, but I've never actually been musical other than some feeble attempts at guitar like practically every adolescent boy. And I have really developed such a fondness for jazz piano trios, that I figure I've got the next 30-40 years to learn how to do that which I love. So, in 2019 I plan to play a lot more piano.

But there's more. And, I'm calling it French-Piano-Handstand.

Living artfully is my idea of being in the flow and in a groove and living well, doing what I want and need to do with deliberate intention and a sense of joy on the way to always "becoming who you are." Thoreau called it "living the life you have imagined," and there are certainly parts of my life that I have imagined but are still not a reality. Part of it is academic and scholarly in terms of the type of writing I want to do. While I've had a reasonable bit of success with some freelance journalism, and have even sold a few copies of my re-imagined thesis study of the works of Douglas Coupland, I would like to do more long-form writing on both academic and pop culture subjects. I've also done enough travel and food blogging that I think I could find some success in that area. My writing notebooks - as I imagine many writers' are - are filled with ideas for articles and books. If I'm living more deliberately and more artfully, then I will be producing regular pieces, regardless of whether I find a place to publish.

So ... what does this have to do with French or Handstands?

It's a catch-all theme for the areas of growth where I want to devote regular attention. Being comfortable in another language is something I would like to have in my life. And, having studied four years of French in high school, and having lived in Taiwan for five years, I have enough of a background in French and Mandarin Chinese that I ought to be able to achieve and maintain a decent level of competence. To that end I've been tinkering around with a few of the obvious online sources like Duolingo and YouTube tutorials, and of course I have the added benefit of working in a high school where I can always pop in on a class or chat in the halls with teachers and students. But in my view of the life I have imagined, French stands for any academic or scholarly pursuit, including writing. In fact, because I have a son who's a junior in high school (and just scored a perfect 36 on the ACT), I would also like to go back and make sure I can still do the kind of math that is expected on those tests. These days it's so easy to learn so many things online via Khan Academy or Udemy or Master Class, that I'd be a fool not to take advantage. So I plan to.

The "piano" aspect of my French-Piano-Handstand is obviously focused on learning to play piano with a degree of fluency. But I am also re-discovering visual and graphic art, and I really want to add more art in my life in terms of drawing and painting. There are so many amazing opportunities to experience art in and around Denver, including opportunities to take art classes, and I would like to make the visual and graphic arts more a part of my life. I know that I used to draw as a child, but like so many people (especially Americans), I somehow regressed into the belief that "I can't draw." That sort of thinking drives the Fine Arts coordinator at my school crazy because he knows that anyone can be an artist, and I believe him when he claims everyone should be. We should make art regularly. That idea of creation is so valuable - if I do nothing else with the rest of my life, I'd like to create more as I consume less.

And, finally, the Handstand. While my fitness is pretty respectable for a (almost) forty-nine-year-old man, I know I can do better. And, to me, the handstand is the pinnacle of fitness, specifically the ability to pull myself into a handstand from the floor in a yoga pose. So, if I could reach a point where I can comfortably do the crow in yoga, and then be able to do a legit handstand, then I will know that I am in pretty good shape and am physically "living artfully."


Thursday, December 27, 2018

What is "This Thing We Call Literature"?


In literature, words have connotations. And it's worth noting that the word literature has a connotation as well. The general consensus is that it's a bit highbrow, and it's almost expected to be less-than-accessible to the average reader. Literature is that long, complicated boring stuff we had to read in school. The definition I've tended to use with my students has been that literature is "the stuff that matters." I would always draw a distinction between good storytelling and literature. Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, I would explain, is a great story, but actually contains rather weak writing, and it certainly won't ever be studied, nor will it even be thought of a generation from now.

Of course, I could be wrong. And there are far more scholarly and erudite people to explain and resolve this. Arthur Krystal is definitely one of those.

Krystal is one of my favorite critics, writers, and thinkers, and for Winter Break I've been reading and enjoying several of his books of essays and criticism, notably the inspiration for this post: This Thing We Call Literature. Krystal is, I believe, first and foremost an essayist, and he spends much of his practice in the form pondering the very nature of writing and storytelling. One of his targets in the book is the growing idea in contemporary society that literature is whatever we want it to be, or even worse, anything that is written. He draws some insight and perspective from the theory posited in a book of lit crit A New Literary History of America, which makes the astute observation that Bob Dylan is potentially the most well known and significant poet in America today. This perspective is, of course, validated by his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Add to this the news of rapper Kendrick Lamar being awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and you can see the argument take shape.

Exploring the depths of my original comment about Stephanie Meyer, Krystal's discussion of commercial or genre fiction versus literary fiction is the crux of differing views about literature. For example, he notes the significance of popularity in weighing a literary work's significance, and he concedes the obvious reality that the works of Charles Dickens were the popular fiction of their time. I particularly enjoyed his reference to Edmund Wilson's classic New Yorker essay disparaging popular crime fiction, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" When I ran across an excerpt from that essay years ago in, of all places, an SAT prep book, it opened my eyes to to the battle over literature and popular fiction. Certainly, popularity is not the barometer by which we measure quality - fast food and reality TV being the textbooks examples of the flaw in that logic.

That said, Pop Culture has a distinctly different status than it did even twenty years ago. As Krystal notes: If you think Buffy the Vampire Slayer deserves to be the subject of an academic dissertation ... then you are living in the right time. No doubt. And I am certainly one to elevate Buffy to the body of work worthy of study. For years, I have half-joked to my classes that my first scholarly work of literary criticism will be centered on the three Bs of culture studies: "The Bible, Beowulf, & Buffy." But I don't disagree with Kyrstal or Lionel Trilling or Northrop Frye or Harold Bloom that there are clear distinctions for that which we deem literature. And, I'd also agree that post-modern obfuscation of ideas like quality and morality and truth are doing no service to culture. There's the good stuff that matters and won't soon be forgotten ... and there's everything else.

Anyway, if you want to read and ponder some thoughts on language and literature, check out some Arthur Krystal.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

AO Scott on Sam Lipsyte novels on the Gen X male


I may or may not read the latest lad-lit semi-ironic satire of the aging suburban Gen X white male from fifty-year-old author and Columbia creative writing professor Sam Lipsyte, Hark. But I certainly enjoyed the clever, erudite, and self aware review from one of my favorite critics, the New York Times' A.O. Scott:

"Sam Lipsyte's Lame Send-up of a Guru and his Acolytes," published recently in The Atlantic.

as someone who has been there—who’s still there, thickening and graying as the Millennials and the Gen Z kids dethrone my idols and refuse to laugh at my jokes—I regard The Ask as one of the most unbearable and hilarious books I’ve ever read. Accordingly, I had great hopes for Hark, which might have been a mistake, given that the cumulative lesson of all of Lipsyte’s fiction (two books of stories, Venus Drive and The Fun Parts, in addition to the novels) is that low expectations are the only reasonable kind.
....
But somebody might. Most of all, the gestures toward Major Novel status in Hark—Pynchony, Lethem-esque names like Hark Morner and Fraz Penzig, Dieter Delgado and Teal Baker-Cassini; Infinite Jesticles in the form of wacky brand names and inscrutable terrorist organizations; intimations of apocalypse that accelerate in the book’s final pages—have an air of desperation. The impulse to make big thematic statements is accompanied, and perhaps defeated, by a joke-making reflex, as if attempted seriousness has triggered a kind of autoimmune response:

Friday, December 14, 2018

Niche-y Nietzsche


I first discovered Nietzsche in middle school when I read Danny Sugarman’s biography of Jim Morrison No One Here Gets Out Alive. In describing Morrison’s formative years, especially the books he read, Sugarman mentioned the writings of Nietzsche as being hugely influential in the early self-education of the future Lizard King, and for a young suburban kid fascinated by the rise of punk and the rebellious music of the 1960s, the writer-philosopher who developed the concept of the ubermensch and explored the depths of nihilism seemed to be to perfect inroad into the intellectual side of cool.

Over the years, I've been casually intrigued by how many times and ways references would come up time and again to Western Civ’s most challenging philosopher. That consistent presence just deepened and reiterated to me the significance of this complicated man. To know Nietzsche was to know something elitist-ly subversive. Thirty-five years after I first learned of Nietzsche, his presence still pops up in culture and conversation, and the recent publication of John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche has pushed the original Superman onto our cultural radar again. What is it about this man that makes me (us) want to buy the book just based on the title? Mention Nietzsche and you immediately perk interest. We want to know Nietzsche even if we don’t know why. We want to cite him. We want to understand him. We want to be in the know about him.

There is just something niche-y about Nietzsche.

In “Hiking With Nietzsche, ” Mr. Kaag turns from these homegrown, largely optimistic philosophers and considers Friedrich Nietzsche, the German thinker best known for such pronouncements as “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” and “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Why? What is it about Hitler’s favorite philosopher that holds Mr. Kaag’s attention? Mr. Kaag admits that “Nietzsche’s philosophy is sometimes pooh-poohed as juvenile—the product of a megalomaniac that is perhaps well suited to the self-absorption and naïveté of the teenage years but best outgrown by the time one reaches adulthood.” Mr. Kaag’s own wife, a student of Immanuel Kant, loathes Nietzsche. True to cliché, Mr. Kaag’s fascination with Nietzsche is rooted in his adolescence. Years later, having reached a period of relative calm and happiness in his life, he feels compelled to reclaim and come to terms with a raw, wild element from his past that Nietzsche inspired and exemplified.