Reading in the Wild
Into the Wild (1996) by John Krakauer is about Chris McCandless, a recent college grad who decides to live a life of simplicity and solitude on the road. He came from a well-to-do family in Virginia, attended college in Georgia, and then immediately donated his trust fund to a charity and took off for the west. He started calling himself Alexander Supertramp and made many friends along his journey through South Dakota, New Mexico, and north to Alaska.
The story captivated me at first. I felt fascinated by this young man who would be brave enough to leave comfort and civilization behind to live his truth. He wanted to connect with the land and with nature, and he did so bravely and without fear. I don’t have that bravery. I’m afraid of the wilderness and dirt, and I love my curling iron way too much. But deep down, I feel that I’m missing something, so I admire McCandless’s courage.
I found his desire to leave civilization behind an interesting reaction to technology. I’ve been studying technology in one of my classes (see my post on technological determinism) and I’ve had the thought that some of us embrace technology and all of its new iterations wholeheartedly. I know people who have every new version of the iPhone as soon as it comes out and who have embraced the digital age without looking back. I sit more in the middle, still connected to my physical copies of books and still wanting to have and hold “something” when I make a purchase. Digital purchases leave me feeling bereft, kind of like the post office, where you pay for something and then leave with nothing but a receipt and the hope that your package gets to where it is going. I’m sure there are more shades of gray in types of technology users and adapters, but I’m going to say that then there are people like McCandless, whose response is to completely reject civilization, its comforts, and its problems.
He lived on rice, hitchhiked, killed his own food, and tried to grow it as well. He really tried. But in the end, he died. It’s a sad story, and we know that he has died as soon as we start reading, but getting through the accounts that led up to his demise still left me with hope that he would somehow come out of the Alaskan wilderness alive.
Now, I said before that I liked the book at first. What bothered me was Krakauer’s account of his own climbing and wilderness adventures in the middle of the book. Just when I thought I was getting to more interesting information about the McCandless case, Krakauer changes directions and begins recounting his own adventures. They were somewhat interesting, but I just didn’t feel invested in his story, and I wanted to hear more about “the boy.” Krakauer did have some interesting thoughts on his own relationship with his father, which reminded me of my difficult family situation, so that part did speak to me. But overall, the book could have done without it.
Yet, as I say this, I realize that my book reviews are often just as self-indulgent and self-centered as I found Krakauer’s writing to be. I often focus on myself when writing about books, sharing my reactions, my thoughts, my memories, my experiences, and my stories. I think these things are important for my blog, because it is mine, and I want to remember. I think these interjections make my writing more relatable and interesting, but perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe they just make me annoying and self-indulgent. Maybe I just need to give Krakauer a break!
The end of the book, when McCandless’s family visits the place where he died is heart breaking. I really felt for his parents and their loss. It is a tragedy, despite the fact that many judged McCandless to be incompetent and full of hubris in attempting to survive in the Alaskan wilderness alone. I’m not sure what to think, but I do find the story sad and upsetting.
Most interesting to me were the books that McCandless had read as he traveled. Here is the list:
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Civil Disobedience and Other Essays by Henry David Thoreau
White Fang by Jack London
Family Happiness and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Taras Bulba by Nikolai Vasilievitch Gogol
Mormon Country by Wallace Stegner
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Big Woods by William Faulkner