The backstory to Elaine Pagels’s The Origin of Satan, Revelations, and groundbreaking studies of the Gnostic gospels is as much emotional as scholarly. As she realized when she was asked Why Religion? (Ecco, $27.99) her own life illuminates both why she’s made a career of studying religious texts as well as why religion itself still exists in the supposedly secular 21st-century. The daughter and wife of scientists, Pagels was taught early on to trust the rational, despite her biologist father’s unpredictable bouts of rage. At fifteen she went with friends to a Billy Graham crusade and was astonished, hearing Graham preach about nuclear weapons, to learn that science wasn’t always trustworthy. She was also intrigued by the shared spectacle of music and ritual, and craved experiences that would similarly “engage the imagination.” Pagels fell away from evangelicalism soon after finding it, but she continued to look for, and discover, experiences that could only be called spiritual. Then in 1987 Pagels’s five-year old son died, followed in July 1988 by the death of her husband, the physicist Heinz Pagels. Struggling to face these incomprehensible losses, Pagels plunged into the Gnostic gospels once again, she discovered other ways to shape grief and to interpret the problem of suffering in the world.
When he was nineteen, John Kaag was so devoted to Nietzsche that he nearly killed himself following in his footsteps on an Alpine trek. Nearly twenty years later, Kaag is still drawn to that ascetic ideal. Though he understands things in Nietzsche that he didn’t before, he makes a second pilgrimage to Sils Maria, the village where Nietzsche lived from 1883 to 1888. In Hiking With Nietzsche (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $26) he's still hoping to reach the heights, but this time, he brings a wife and four-year-old daughter, as well as a more mature perspective that finds Zarathustra not a guide to the unalloyed truth, but a work by a dissatisfied, imperfect individual. Kaag largely maintains this clear-eyed, unromantic view throughout this refreshing and insightful book that, like the wonderful American Philosophy, is as much memoir as it is biography and history of ideas.
The story of Frederick Douglass’s rise from runaway slave to leading abolitionist, writer, and orator has been told before, not least by Douglass himself in not one but three autobiographies. Still, David W. Blight’s extensively researched, richly textured new biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon & Schuster, $37.50), reveals fresh details and provides a deeper appreciation of the complexities and paradoxes of the most important African American of the 19th century. Drawing on previously unpublished materials discovered in a private collection in Georgia, Blight, a Yale history professor, not only examines Douglass’ voluminous writings and speeches but also delves into his two marriages, other relationships, and complex extended family. While Blight clearly admires Douglass’s brilliant intellect, literary talents, and oratorical skills, he offers a balanced view of his subject’s many sides and turbulent life in this illuminating and engaging book.