A book beyond category attempts to engage readers on a number of levels.
A less ambitious author could have focused this successfully as a World War II thriller, a nonfiction account of how a multinational band of guerrillas kidnapped a German general on the Nazi-occupied island of Crete (see Rick Stroud’s Kidnap in Crete, 2015). Yet Men’s Health contributing editor McDougall (Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, 2009) interweaves this narrative with inquiries into the uniqueness of Crete, the nature of heroism, the possibility that some Greek myths might have historical legitimacy (“Just because men and women of our era don’t live up to the myths doesn’t mean no one ever has, or will again”), a first-person, adventure-travel account of his attempt to solve the mystery by discovering the path of the kidnappers, and an indictment of the fitness industry, whose health clubs and diets that stress carb-loading might do more harm than good. There are compelling insights and provocative assertions throughout, but the narrative organization suggests a risky juggling act that sometimes seems arbitrary, and those preparing for a marathon might read it differently than World War II buffs will. Paraphrasing Plutarch, McDougall writes, “Heroes care. True heroism, as the ancients understood, isn’t about strength or boldness or even courage. It’s about compassion….[The hero] has to care so much about what’s human, it brings out what’s godly.” Using examples and anecdotes spanning decades, the author shows how ordinary people can display extraordinary heroism, a quality not limited by age or gender. He suggests that in “natural training,” a sense of play trumps the rigors of working out and that competition is just showing off.
A mostly engaging mix of World War II history, Greek mythology, endurance training and spiritual self-help that doesn’t always cohere.