Nietzsche Within Your Grasp

by Shelley O'Hara
Wiley, 2004; 96 pages.

Rating: L A U

L = Layperson - This book will appeal to those with no specific knowledge of philosophy (this does not mean that it is 'easy', or 'for dummies', but merely that you don't need to have studied philosophy to find it interesting or enjoyable). A = A-level student (UK)/Freshman (US) - This book will be useful for those studying philosophy. It assumes that you will want a certain level of detail and coverage of the subject, and that you are not just reading it for pleasure. However, it is still an introductory text. U = Undergraduate - Generally, a book of this type will provide more detail and be more challenging than a beginner's guide. So, it will either assume some previous knowledge, or else treat the subject in a way that will be useful for more in-depth study. As such, it will be most suitable for those who have aleady read an introductory text, are fairly familiar with the general nature of the subject, and are looking to develop their understanding further.

Nietzsche Within Your Grasp (hereafter NWYG) is a succinct guide to the life, works and general ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche. The main text comes in at seventy five pages, and is organised into seven chapters: the first dealing with Nietzsche's life, the second with his general philosophical views (together with a brief overview of his books), and the remaining five are each dedicated to one of his central works (The Birth of Tragedy, The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good And Evil, and Ecce Homo). It is thoroughly indexed, for such a short book, and contains a useful Further Reading section, briefly detailing books and websites for further study. The text itself is split into short sections under headings and subheadings, allowing the reader to quickly identify central themes and ideas through bite-size chunks of text (few of which are longer than a page, and some of which are as short as a few lines). The writing style is relatively accessible, and there is frequent quotation from Nietzsche's works in the process of explaining key points. This is, I think, important for a book that not only aims to sum up Nietzsche's ideas, but also seeks to encourage readers to tackle the original texts themselves. However, the book is quite quotation-heavy, and there is a tendency at times to quote chunks of text in order to make a point rather than simply explaining it (which may be difficult for the reader who is completely new to Nietzsche). Furthermore, the text is not footnoted (which I can partly understand), but none of the quotations are referenced, which doesn't really aid anyone wanting to track down the source of a quotation.

As for the general approach to Nietzsche and his ideas, NWYG is serious and sympathetic, highlighting key ideas intelligently, dispelling common myths, and generally presenting a sound interpretation of Nietzsche's work and ideas. This said, the text is not completely error free - for instance, Nietzsche is credited with founding the Schopenhauer Society in 1911 (eleven years after his death) [1] - and the myth that Nietzsche contracted syphilis is repeated in a number of places without really being explored; [2] also, occasionally, there are some annoying typos in quotations from Nietzsche (though only a handful). However, on the whole, the book is well-organised, sound and informative, covers a lot of ground in a short space, and provides extremely useful summaries of key ideas, links between works, and occasional connections to other thinkers (Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Freud) and movements (existentialism, Darwinism, pessimism). As already noted, the index is especially useful, and the listing of themes in Nietzsche's thought is particularly handy. Most importantly, however, there is no attempt to 'dumb down', and as a result Nietzsche's ideas are not distorted or oversimplified.

NWYG, p.3. The intended reference here is probably to Paul Deussen (1845-1919), a lifelong friend of Nietzsche who went on to found the Schopenahauer Society in that year. See 'Friedrich Nietzsche (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)', Whereas, as Dr Leonard Sax has argued, there is no real evidence for this, and other diagnoses - such as brain cancer - fit much better. See Dr Leonard Sax, 'What was the cause of Nietzsche's dementia?' Journal Of Medical Biography, 11 (2003), p.47-54.

In conclusion, NWYG is mostly well-suited to anyone coming to Nietzsche for the first time and looking to obtain a broad yet serious understanding of his philosophy, and is very reasonably priced (you certainly get your money's worth). It would be ideal, for instance, for a student who has been asked to consider some of Nietzsche's ideas in relation to a more general course of study (e.g. ethics), or for someone who is studying a single text (e.g. Beyond Good and Evil) and who wants to make links between that book and the rest of Nietzsche's thought. Its small deficiencies aside, I therefore wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to the layperson and the majority of students (though those studying Nietzsche at higher levels will require a more detailed and lengthy treatment).

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