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.

into the wild coverThe 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


39 thoughts on “Reading in the Wild

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  1. I could talk about this all day. Instead I will just put my review from Goodreads that I wrote three years ago. I just want to say first though that I like the Krakauer interruption. I think that he does some of his own soul searching. The Supertramp made him rethink his own decision making and it helped him discover why he misjudged McCandless in his article for Outside magazine. He went to such effort to correct the impression he gave his readers of this brave but misguided soul.

    This book is a passion of mine. Everytime I read it I connect in a different way to McCandless. First I found him admirable and pathetic. I thought no one was as brave as he to go tramping off into the wilderness to connect with the Earth. Next time I read it I was a few years older and I realized that the authors that inspired him, Thoreau, Tolstoy, London, did not live their philosophies. McCandless was niave, thinking he could carry out principles that the men who wrote them could not do! His family’s plight really touched me, they didn’t know where he was for years, then he turns up dead in Alaska. He left a lot of people heartbroken. Krakauer intersperses his own adventure seeking stories as he compares and contrasts his mindset to what he imagines McCandless’ to be. Krakauer is also a man obsessed, he researched this book passionately and wanted to correct his original impressions of McCandless from an article he wrote for “Outside” magazine. American writers love road trips, and McCandless follows in a long line of advernturerers who believe they can find themselves by searching all across America. I highly recommend this book for those who love literature and nature, and stories about a search for identity and meaning in life.

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Caitlin! I always appreciate your insights. I also like that you’ve read this book several times and had different experiences with and reactions to it. I think that is true of any book. And thanks for pointing out that the authors who inspired him did not live what they wrote or professed to believe. I think that was an important part of the narrative. It highlights how complex all of us are, and I know I profess to believe certain things or embrace certain attitudes, but my actions may differ. I want to be consistent (I think many of us do) but it is nearly impossible because we are human. That lesson extends to McCandless and realizing (for me) that he may have been “stupid” but he was human and we are all, in our own way “stupid.” 🙂

      1. That is so true. I think I ultimately find McCandless a sympathetic person, but I always keep in mind that we still only know McCandless through the lens of Krakauer. We’ll never really know what truly drove McCandless, or what his real personality was. But I think that “Into the Wild” is a special book. I am glad you like my insights. I studied literature in college and it is so nice to have someone to talk about books with!

  2. Remember reading this in middle school, it was on my Nana’s bookshelf for some odd reason. I was amazed with what he did, well what he was willing to do. I mean give up everything you held dear and completely remove yourself from it, but towards the end I felt as if he could have made better decisions to avoid his death. At the same time, I commend the author who took the time to retrace the steps of McCandless. Did you happen to watch the film made directed by Sean Penn?

  3. This book, the film and McCandless’s life are the reasons why Alaska is no.1 on my places to visit next! I think it is a beautiful yet tragic story which I found admirable, he was brave enough to do what a lot of us wish we had the strength to do x

  4. I really was connected with this story as well. My emotions ran the gamut you and others have already mentioned. I first, in my own hubris, thought him naive and stupid in his Alaska survivor fantasy. There was a lot of cocky young man in the selflessness of that kid. But it’s not a story you can dismiss so easily, it keeps gnawing for more and different meaning, likely because no one will ever really know what went on in McCandless’s head or why he died to trying save himself. I’ve seen the movie too, and thought it really well done. In the end, it leaves the whole thing hanging, as McCandless left his family (and us all) hanging. I think the point IS to question, and continue to question, rather than to dismiss this complexity as just stupidity.

  5. I didn’t know that Into the Wild was a book until now. I’ve only heard of the movie, and my friend and I plan on watching it soon. We are most interested in it because Eddie Vedder does all of the music in the movie. I’m really interested in reading the book now, too! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Interesting reading list there, McCandless … now I want to recommend books to him, as though that could somehow change his fate. Poor guy. It’s been a while since I read this one, but I remember thinking he seemed so sweetly innocent in his counterculture-ness, somehow. He didn’t come off, to me, as suicidal or idiotic (as some contended) as much as idealistic and hopelessly naive. He didn’t fundamentally believe anything really bad could happen to him. Anyway. Sad case.

    1. It was sad, and he did seem sweet and innocent. I really think he had good intentions, and it is too bad that he died. Which books would you recommend to him?

      1. Hmmm. Probably some easy-read novels with survival tips hidden in them like cauliflower in your mashed potatoes. My Side of the Mountain? Roughing It? Hatchet?

  7. I completely agree with you on this – the middle section of the book felt self-indulgent on the author’s part and detracted from an engrossing and emotionally compelling story. It left me full of admiration for McCandless but also raised so many moral questions about the decisions he made – both for himself and those he left behind.

    I also find this piece of work interesting as it’s one of the very few occasions that a movie has ever done a book justice!… so yes, definitely check it out.

  8. You have just won yourself a real “follower.” Any fan of Into the Wild’s a fan of mine. I mean, I’m a fan of them. Urgh. Yeah. Glad you got FP’d. Woo-T-oot. Supertramp, out. (I’m not really Supertramp; he’s dead. I’m just his equally delusional reincarnation).

  9. I found myself quite disappointed by this book, I had expected more of it than I ended up getting. I will say though, that it really made me think about life and why we so often live it the way society expects us to.
    I am quite excited to watch the film, as it is supposed to be absolutely beautiful.
    Nice review!

  10. I have to agree with you about the digital purchase. It is just like with e-books. Although they are cheaper and more practical, it is not like the feeling of holding a real book with cover and pages in your hands 🙂

  11. I loved this book, it showed how disillusioned he was, family, marriage but still loved. it a modern Catcher in the Rye but instead of just complaining he tried to change his view.

  12. My reaction to Into the Wild was very similar to yours. I was fascinated by McCandless, torn between admiration for him trying to live his ideals and pity for his tragic end, one which could so easily have been avoided if he hadn’t been so foolhardy, if he hadn’t had a better appreciation for nature, if he had brought a map. I thought he was courageous yet foolish and it made me reevaluate if compromises people re careers, education, etc. make are practical and wise or show lack of conviction. I also thought Krakauer inserting himself in the story so directly was intrusive and detracted from the power of the overall book because Krakauer is so much less compelling than McCandless.

    Anyway, I think there is a difference in sharing your experiences reading a book on a review and writing a book about someone else then midway inserting your own adventures. Still, I think Krakauer is a good writer and I did appreciate his sharing why he wrote about Chris McCandless and I’m planning to read Banner of Heaven at some point.

  13. This is one of my all time favorite books by one of my favorite authors. I have to disagree about Krakauer’s interjections. I just wish I had found this book in college befor I went to law school and settled down with The Wife, because I could see myself doing something similar to what McCandless did (sans the poisonous berries).

    If you enjoyed the book regardless of the author’s interjections, you must read Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory and Into Thin Air. Into Thin Air is especially riveting to me and the better book because Krakauer was actually on Everest when the disaster occurred.

    1. Thanks for weighing in. I do think I would enjoy Krakauer’s interjections in Into Thin Air because he was there and he does have a personal perspective on it. I’ll give it a try!

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