Book review: Into the Wild

Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer (1996), was a bummer of a book. Describing the ultimately fatal journey of a disillusioned, middle-class young man into the Alaskan wilderness, the book seeks to explain how and why Chris McCandless died. Through interviews with the family members he abandoned on the East Coast and the friends he met along the road out West, adventure journalist Jon Krakauer recounted the two years Chris spent hitch-hiking around the United States before living his final few months in solitude in an abandoned school bus.

At the time of Chris’s death in 1992, Krakauer was writing for Outside magazine. He initially covered the mysterious occurrence in an article for the publication and later expanded the coverage into a book. Krakauer took pains in seeking to reconstruct why Chris (an intelligent, fairly social man in his young twenties) donated almost his entire savings, moved out of his apartment and hit the road for the life of a vagabond, without telling anyone of his plans to do so. Chris spent a few years working odd jobs as he traveled, but mostly eschewed a lifestyle that necessitated stable jobs, housing or relationships – always yearning for more out of life.

” ‘ He was right in saying that the only certain happiness in life is to live for others …’ “

Quoted in Into the Wild. A highlighted portion in Chris McCandless’ copy of Tolstoy’s Family Happiness. Apparently annotated just a few weeks before Chris passed away.

I read one of Krakauer’s other books, Into Thin Air, a few years ago after reading a synopsis of the account in a Harvard Business Review case study. Into Thin Air described the fatal 1996 guided attempt to ascend Mount Everest during which 8 people died on the mountain in one day. Krakauer obviously survived, but his guide and other climbing friends did not. The main narrative of that book was very focused on his personal journey, which made sense given the context.

On the other hand, Krakauer’s Into The Wild seemed to weave in too much personal bias for a book that wasn’t about Krakauer. Typically, when chronicling real-life events regarding other people, authors leave out or at least attempt to mask their bias. In Into the Wild, Krakauer didn’t even try. In fact, an entire chapter of the book describes his own solo adventure into the Alaskan wilderness. His own anecdote didn’t do much other than depicting a youthful thirst for primal nature, which wasn’t necessary or even very helpful for understanding Chris McCandless’ story.

My overarching thought of the book was that Krakauer was determined to prove to himself or to the reader – perhaps even to the world – that Chris McCandless wasn’t an idiot, but rather an unfortunate traveler whose mild naivety did not mix well with the tempestuous natural conditions of Alaska. My conclusion: despite his best efforts, Krakauer didn’t succeed in his endeavor.

Chris McCandless was (indisputably) foolishly unprepared for his adventure, and his cocky recklessness resulted in the loss of a life that his friends and family deeply valued. I had a very hard time finding anything redemptive in the story other than the importance of always traveling with an up-to-date map. Chris vainly searched for (and died while) seeking a PURPOSE without ever considering that he was born with an innate human purpose – to connect, to grow, to learn, to love.

This book might be for you if you also like: Into Thin Air (Krakauer); climbing mountains; the state of Alaska; road trips; literature by Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, or John Muir; the American West; Into the Wild film (2007).

SDG.

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