So here we go again with a series of brief book reviews. This time we have Jack Kerouac, Herman Melville, Alex Honnold & David Roberts and Andrea Wulf on the shelves. A series of brave, bold books
Jack Kerouac – The Dharma Bums
Though Kerouac is mostly known for his ‘On The Road’. I personally felt more attracted to ‘The Dharma Bums’. Anyone with a love for rock climbing and hiking has to read it apparently. I think it would be good for anyone to read about a cleaner, greener America where there still was hope for a rucksack revolution. Replace America with a European state and the same story makes sense. The protagonist of this story is the Kerouac alter-ego, Ray Smith. Smith is a bum most of the time, traveling around with other poet friends, spreading the word of Buddha and trying to find enlightenment in a world that is rapidly changing into convenience, commodities, and capital-driven. It’s the last attempt at finding beauty in the untarnished nature and simple pleasures that life offers.
To me, most of the book revolves around the climb of a specific mountain, named the Matterhorn Peak in Yosemite. The ascent and descent of the mountain seem to form the pinnacle of the story. Here Smith finds absolute beauty and spiritual joy in the climbing and hiking. The simplicity of it all is the message and the book travels on like the descent is everything that comes after, just as everything before was part of the ascent. It’s at the peak where we find joy, where we are closest to the gods. The original intent behind this book might have passed me by. Regardless, I believe in the rucksack revolution. I believe that we all should pack our bags and travel into nature, into the wild now and then to find our true selves and the simple beauty that is life. That to me tells that this book can still bring that spirituality to readers far in the future.
Alex Honnold en David Roberts – Alone on the Wall
Alex Honnold has become something of a legend in recent years for free-soloing mountainsides. Free-soloing means going up there without a rope, just with climbing shoes and a chalk bag. That’s some hardcore stuff, so reading his first book is well worth your time regardless if you love climbing, know about climbing or are just fascinated. Though hardly a biography, the book offers a glimpse into the mind of a man who climbs with the ultimate risk and still earned the nickname Alex ‘No Big Deal’ Honnold. The book follows him through a series of expeditions and extreme climbs that were undertaken during his career.
We get a glimpse into the person that is Honnold, from his own perspective and from people around him. It’s weird that Roberts manages to pull out a lot of really personal stuff out of the climber. An example is Honnold’s relationship in the past that seems to really have been an emotional rollercoaster at times, without every bearing the man’s soul to the world. The explanation is simple. Honnold, like an artist, shows his soul when he climbs the big walls. When he speaks of climbing it’s not super exciting, it’s his action that is that of a true poet and monk at the same time. The spirituality of climbing you glance from his eyes in some of the videos and interviews, but rarely from his words and that is perfectly fine.
Herman Melville – Bartleby the Scrivener
“I prefer not to” is what Bartleby responds to his boss and benefactor when he is asked to review his work. Bartleby is a scrivener, basically a copyist in the era when duplication of documents was work by hand. The simple, though not forceful, negation holds a message for today. Melville wrote this in protest, in frustration about the lack of success of his writing, but it’s that voice of dissent that still rings true today. I read this on the airplane, coming home to a situation I was not entirely happy within the work sphere. The simple story in this book felt strangely powerful.
So Bartleby refuses to do work that doesn’t appear to him. He starts negating more and more and protests in an almost Buddhist-like non-action way. This inevitably leads to his death in the end of this strange story. The simple words keep ringing: “I prefer not to”. Melville wrote a story worth reading, even if only consisting of 50 pages. It has a power of its own, like any good short story and should be read more widely.
Andrea Wulf – The Invention of Nature
It is a strange thing, the way time obscures certain people. Andrea Wulf illuminates the figure of Alexander Von Humboldt in this biography, an explorer, scientist and thinker of the 18th and 19th century with a profound effect on the way we think and look at nature. Wulf names him in the title already the forgotten hero of science and nothing seems to fit better than this. The book follows the life of Von Humboldt in all its imperfections, creating storylines that sometimes overlap and revisit each other. It reads like one of those adventure novels I loved to read when I was a little boy and Von Humboldt soon becomes your hero when you’re reading these pages. Through it all, the figure takes shape and form and becomes real to the reader.
But Wulf does more than just telling the story. She also explores the how and why of Von Humboldt’s emission from our history books took place. After connecting his work and influence to some of the most pivotal thinkers of their time, from Charles Darwin to Símon Bolivar, she explains that part. Germany has lost a lot of popularity due to the two world wars in the 20th century and this simply lead to omitting the German from street signs, libraries and the like. Only in South-America, his name seems to be as revered as it was back in the day. This is a huge shame, but it is the way of things. Thanks to Andrea Wulf this great man of the sciences, arts and the inventor of nature as we know it now has the biography that brings him back to us.