Saturday, January 19, 2013

Into the Wild

This is one of the few books left that I have been longing to discuss and yet have put on hold.  When I first read Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, I was incredibly moved and inspired.  I knew immediately that I wanted my friends to read it as well, and I almost instantly gave my copy to someone on loan.  This story was a necessary reminder of why I love literature and spend so much time reading it.  I had just slogged through one of those long and difficult books I often tackle, which provide value but often bring exhaustion along with them.  Into the Wild was a breath of fresh air.

However, the trouble with this book is that its summary is a terribly inadequate representation of its meaning.  From the very beginning, you know that it is a true story about a young man who ventured off in solo travel and tragically died alone in the wilderness.  At the surface, this appears to be the story of a foolish and arrogant kid who brashly took on more than he could handle.  You could say that Christopher McCandless abandoned his privileged inheritance in a self-righteous attempt to flex his strength and independence.  You could say that his life was wasted in an appalling demonstration of hubris and pity his suffering family.  Many people have done just that.

On the other hand, Jon Krakauer was captivated by this mysterious adventurer and intuitively knew that his journey was worth exploration.  After covering the story in a brief newspaper article, Krakauer couldn't get McCandless off his mind.  On some level, he identified with McCandless and knew that there was more to his story. Like Truman Capote, he abandoned his other work in a relentless pursuit of understanding this stranger who posthumously crossed his path.  He sought out every connection he could find, even those who spent just minutes with McCandless, transporting the hitchhiker.  He poured through McCandless’ personal book collection, noting all the highlighted and marked passages.  I say this reminds me of Truman Capote because he similarly dedicated himself to write In Cold Blood.  Both of these books spoke to me on a different level than those I typically read.  It changes things to know that what you’re reading actually happened.  There is something fascinating about uncovering the layers of a person who cannot speak for himself.  We won’t ever truly know what McCandless was thinking, but we can piece together an idea with the scraps of life he left behind.  Guided by Krakauer’s skilled hand, those pieces result in a beautiful and inspiring story.

It is difficult to pick out what moved me most about McCandless' story.  I admire that he wanted to challenge himself and that he sought to also understand himself in the process.  There are times when I felt very disconnected from him, as he adopted the moniker "Alexander Supertramp" and abandoned all the relationships he had formed.  But his last words are recorded, his final thoughts in the knowledge of his oncoming death.  This is such an incredibly intimate thing, and I was enraptured as he penned his own eulogy: "I have had a happy life and thank the Lord.  Goodbye and may God bless all!"

Whatever led McCandless to venture into the Alaskan wilderness was not wasted in his untimely death.  He showed us how it looks when a person follows his convictions and steps out in the face of uncertainty.  He demonstrated what it means to follow your dreams despite the obstacles.  He learned to recognize his mistakes and adapt his philosophy by the end of his journey.  Most of all, he showed us that a life well lived is a life without regret.

I absolutely love this book and hope to read much more by Jon Krakauer in the future.  I have no trouble asserting that it should join the ranks of Classic Literature and be read by many generations to come.

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