The impetus for the book: Krakauer was assigned a feature story for a magazine about a 24-year-old kid who'd been found starved to death in an old bus in the Alaskan wilderness. He found the story so compelling, and the character of Chris McCandless so similar to his own, that he felt compelled to unravel as much of the mystery surrounding his death as possible. He talked to Chris' family as well as all of the people Chris had stayed with, or accepted help or tides from along the road. Chris graduated from Emory University in Atlanata in 1990 and, without telling his family who thought he was entering Harvard Law, gave all of his savings to charity, burned the cash he had on him, abandoned most of his belongings, and hit the road on a grand Aesthetic Voyage that eventually led him to Alaska and his death.
I first learned of the book when I was riding a train from Anchorage to Fairbanks a couple of years ago when my mom and I went to visit my dad. I saw someone reading it, and then later saw the same cover in a bookstore and picked it up to see what it was about. Ever since then I'd been planning to read it, because it seemed to couch the whole thing as something grand and awe-inspiring, but all I saw was stupid and unprepared. Then the movie came out and I saw it, and after I got out of the theater I went to the bookstore in the same mall and bought the book.
Here is a long response to a comment on my own LJ a few days ago, when I was discussing the movie (which I had seen) and the book (which I had just started):
- The problem as I see it is that I would like to separate the philosophies from the actions, but I can't. I like civil disobedience and I like communing with nature and making one's own way in the world (when I say I like these things, I'm talking about the theories, because I'm obviously not actually doing any of them), but this kid's convictions led him to some seriously rash decisions if he did go as unprepared into the Alaskan wilds as I think he did. (I'm working from the movie, not the book at this point.)
And therefore, how do you read the story? Is he a hero? Is he a madman? Is he both? What lessons does he teach us? And is his tale cautionary or inspiring?
Is it better to see Chris McCandless as an idealistic guy who only failed because our society is too caught up in material things and therefore drove this young man of such strict principles out into the wilderness?
Or is it better to see him as an antisocial personality who couldn't deal with society in any productive way, not even in the many ways it could have helped him prepare for a journey like the one he eventually took, and therefore died because of misguided thought processes?
And of course there are unnecessary value judgements in everything above, but that's the way our language works.
I dunno. I first saw the book in someone's hands while I was on a train in Alaska, and then recognized the cover in a bookstore later and saw what it was about. And I was all WTF?
I think the author identified a little too much with Chris to get a really accurate picture of his personality and purpose. A couple of chapters were given to descriptions of the author's own youthful Alaskan adventures, but that's not necessarily a bad thing because most of the people who read the magazine story or just hear the basics, including me, seem to immediately call Chris an idiot who didn't prepare. Balance is good. And in other chapters discussing people who've disappeared in the same way Chris McCandless would have if his body hadn't been found, you get a fairly good feel for the type of character that could lead to someone always striving for adventure and to become one with nature and entirely self-sufficieny.
Of course, the basics still hold. If Chris McCandless had taken advantage of a few more of society's amenities (maps, food, knowledge of the region) he might have survived his ordeal. It may indeed have been, as the author argues, a conscious decision to try and test himself in the wild. And though I think it's ill-advised, it was indeed simply a life choice the guy made, and I don't really have a problem with that.
In the end I think Chris McCandless was an interesting guy, but this excerpt from the quote above is what I feel is the most accurate description:
- Or is it better to see him as an antisocial personality who couldn't deal with society in any productive way, not even in the many ways it could have helped him prepare for a journey like the one he eventually took, and therefore died because of misguided thought processes?