Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into the Wild

Librarian's Note: An alternate cover edition can be found hereIn April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invent...

Title:Into the Wild
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:0385486804
Edition Language:English
Number of Pages:207 pages

Into the Wild Reviews

  • Nadine

    Overall, I was pretty disappointed with this book. The genesis of the book was an in-depth magazine article, and I suspect that the article was superb. But I just don't think there's enough here to warrant an entire book. As evidence, I point to several lengthy chapters that have nothing to do with the underlying story--they discuss other people who have gone "into the wild" and, surprisingly, Krakauer includes a whole chapter about himself.

    My other problem is that I found myself unable to ident

    Overall, I was pretty disappointed with this book. The genesis of the book was an in-depth magazine article, and I suspect that the article was superb. But I just don't think there's enough here to warrant an entire book. As evidence, I point to several lengthy chapters that have nothing to do with the underlying story--they discuss other people who have gone "into the wild" and, surprisingly, Krakauer includes a whole chapter about himself.

    My other problem is that I found myself unable to identify or empathize with the central character here. I think that Chris McCandless was not much more than a privileged, entitled, selfish, and undeniably intelligent person who threw everything away and nearly destroyed his family for reasons that weren't any clearer by the end of the book than they were at the beginning. I worried far more about his parents and his sister, who he called his "best friend," than I did about him.

    I ended up "finishing" the book by skimming the last 1/3, or maybe even the last 1/2. I almost gave this only 1 star but decided to go with 2 because I want to give Krakauer the benefit of the doubt--it's a well-written book, I just don't think it needed to be written at all.

  • Dixie Diamond

    My grandfather--not an Alaskan but an experienced outdoorsman--would have tied this kid to a tree and let the bears play tetherball with him.

    A small part of me appreciates the effort Krakauer put into researching this book. A much bigger part of me is completely disgusted both with McCandless himself and with Krakauer's mindless adoration of him. Krakauer pulls out all the stops to make McCandless look like a phenomenon, and seems to agree with McCandless that the world should have handed itself

    My grandfather--not an Alaskan but an experienced outdoorsman--would have tied this kid to a tree and let the bears play tetherball with him.

    A small part of me appreciates the effort Krakauer put into researching this book. A much bigger part of me is completely disgusted both with McCandless himself and with Krakauer's mindless adoration of him. Krakauer pulls out all the stops to make McCandless look like a phenomenon, and seems to agree with McCandless that the world should have handed itself to him on a silver salver because he was just so darned special. We're told he was brilliant, independent, funny, kind, musical, athletic, visionary, talented. Can you see the halo? Unfortunately, the impression that comes across is of a snotty adolescent who has never seriously thought of anyone but himself and is used to getting by on charm and flippancy rather than making good use of his considerable gifts (and I do not doubt that he was gifted). The conflicting aspects of his personality don't sound quirky; they sound devious and self-serving.

    Krakauer tries half-heartedly to disguise his fascination but his admissions that McCandless was a clueless young hothead sound insincere; he has to say it to sound credible to his readers, who are less smitten. Krakauer makes an apt comparison between himself as an idealistic and foolhardy young man, and McCandless, and then dismisses himself because "he didn't have [McCandless':] intellect". This sounds utterly bogus after all we have been told about McCandless' foolish mistakes, and the obvious fact that Krakauer is not stupid. Two chapters that could have provided some insight into his hero are wasted because Krakauer sounds like a religious fanatic, with McCandless as his unknowable God and Krakauer as the I'm-not-worthy follower.

    McCandless' (and Everett Ruess') overconfidence speaks to a fascination with nature but not a respect for it. Courage is not the same as not knowing when we ought to have a healthy degree of fear. Instead, McCandless arrogantly drives his car into the habitat of an endangered species of poppy. He butchers a moose, wasting the life of a beautiful and well-adapted animal because he could not be bothered to learn ahead of time how to preserve it.

    This was not a tragedy; this was inevitable. I don't believe he was schizophrenic or suicidal. Bipolar or ADD, maybe. His own friends readily admitted that he had a lot of enthusiasm but little common sense and didn't know much outside of academia. There are so many glaring outdoorsmanship errors made in the first two chapter that even I was cringing.

    I write this with full admission that I am not much of an outdoorsperson. However, I don't believe for a minute that he lasted longer than most of us would have, or that "at least he tried it", as so many of his fans insist. I wouldn't try it, not because I'm scared, but because I can tell from here that ten pounds of rice and no preparation is a recipe for failure. I don't need to try it, and if I did, I'd want to live to get something out of it. Lots of other people have gone into the wilderness and come out just fine because they knew the magnitude of their own insignificance and planned ahead.

    I'm not jealous of his alleged brilliance, either. I was accepted to Emory. And the University of Chicago. And a couple of other amply respected schools. Lots of people are. Big deal.

    He had money to pay his college tuition; the rest of us graduated and went to work to pay off our loans. He also had the gall to complain about his parents' offers to help him out, which smacks of a kid given so much that he doesn't know how fortunate he is.

    Furthermore, living with nothing by choice is very different from living with nothing because you have no alternative. Though I'm sure he would have denied it, McCandless had the option of going back to his affluent life if he had wanted to, or if he had had to in an emergency. Maybe it would have knocked his self-image for a loop, but he would have been sheltered, fed, and nursed back to health. A lot of people live in poverty without that safety net.

    Hint: There are no vegetarian Aleut. This guy was a history and anthropology major. I learned in anthro that you can eat plants and lean protein until you burst and still starve to death if you aren't getting enough calories. It's very difficult to feed yourself if you're alone and don't have a lot of practice at it.

    McCandless should have read less Thoreau and more Donner Party. London's Alaskan experience was during the Klondike Gold Rush when he had plenty of help from others. Thoreau lived in a cabin on the edge of town, a mile and a half from the family home. He was not in the wilderness. Furthermore, Thoreau's civil disobedience was a protest against the Mexican War and slavery, not a petty defiance of matters of public safety such as mandatory car insurance. McCandless was a rebel without a cause.

    Success-only learning does not work. Krakauer goes into raptures about McCandless' education and intelligence to demonstrate the supposed tragedy of his loss. Nice brain gymnastics, but apples to oranges when what you need is practical knowledge.

    This guy was idolized by some my college classmates, most of whom were sheltered, relatively wealthy urbanites. They had the same vague and pathetic need for "real" experiences and arrogant expectation of success that comes from never having failed at anything in their lives.

    He got lost in Mexico; it would have been more self-reliant to get a map and take charge of his own navigation. He didn't eat for days until somebody felt sorry for him and fed him. Once he was in a situation where there was nobody to step in for him, he died (in this respect, I disagree with Krakauer that McCandless was any different from Carl McCunn). Even at that point, he left a note on the door of the bus begging for rescue.

    The best (and most independent) outdoorsmen spend years learning. Just because you were a superstar student and athlete doesn't mean you get to skip all the hard work. I've no doubt that McCandless was smart, but he was mind-bogglingly ignorant and inexperienced.

    How about joining the Peace Corps? Teaching in inner-city schools? Working in healthcare in a remote South Asian village? If you're so disgusted with society, why don't you do something to improve it rather than keeping all the enlightenment for yourself?

    Nature doesn't care if you live or die. It's survival of the fittest, and humans, compared to most animals, are slow, weak, poorly-armed, poorly-insulated, have no stamina; have poor senses of smell, eyesight, and hearing; and are ill-adapted to go without clean water and food for any length of time. We are clearly meant to live in groups and use tools. This guy didn't even bring an ax.

    His anti-society and anti-materialism were as controlling of him as is the materialism of those who think they can "find themselves" by buying the right clothes or drug habit or SUV.

    A lot of other people–-better-prepared, better-trained, and more sensible people such as park service, volunteers, and EMT's–-end up spending a lot of time and money, and risking their own necks, to save them. McCandless spared everyone that trouble, but I'm sure there's a whole line of wannabes lined up to try it. I hope they have to pay back every penny spent on their rescues.

    And Truth? The bad news is that Truth is relative. It doesn't exist in a vacuum. What a waste.

  • Traci

    I love Jon Krakauer. I didn't find one single thing about the Alex McCandless even remotely interesting. He came across as a spoiled brat with no concept of reality - basically because of his priveleged upbringing. But somehow, he blamed his parents for that void of myopic self absorption.

    I live in Alaska and I've lived in Idaho and Colorado and Oregon . . . basically AROUND people who love the great outdoors. I am more comfortable in a heated coffee shop READING about the great outdoors. Still

    I love Jon Krakauer. I didn't find one single thing about the Alex McCandless even remotely interesting. He came across as a spoiled brat with no concept of reality - basically because of his priveleged upbringing. But somehow, he blamed his parents for that void of myopic self absorption.

    I live in Alaska and I've lived in Idaho and Colorado and Oregon . . . basically AROUND people who love the great outdoors. I am more comfortable in a heated coffee shop READING about the great outdoors. Still, I know that heading into any forest - particularly one at that latitude and altitude in pursuit of adventure with (a) no food, (b) no gear, (c) no plan and (d) no backup plan is nothing short of delusional or maybe just stupid.

    I absolutely adore Jon Krakauer's attempts to explain Alex's possible motives and angst. I get that Krakauer identifies with some of what gnawed at Alex . . . that discontent . . . that feeling that life can't possibly be this pointless . . . etc. I wonder about those things with fairly consistent frequency. I suppose I have my own means of stamping those feelings out (alternating burst of extreme carbohydrate consumption and running or spinning; work and volunteerism). Still, the fact that Alex died of exposure in an abandoned bus in Denali National Park is less poignant than poetic - justice, that is. Darwinism, if you want to be cruel.

    (Cringe) That sounded really awful, didn't it? But Krakauer carefully paints a picture of a young man completely disillusioned with the life that his parents provided for him, the future they groomed him for. A life easier, better than theirs. He points to his parents' mistakes and flaws as lightening rods for Alex's rejection of them and his pursuit of deeper understanding.

    What a luxury. One that we all pursue at some point in our lives and if we have any sense, grow out of. I was constantly irritated with Alex for hitching, homelessness, biting every hand that tried to feed him. His lonely, desperate death not at all surprising and not terribly sad, either . . . except for what it put his family through.

    I had no interest in seeing the movie. I saw trailer images of a young man looking off into the wildnerness with depth and intensity and that is NOT the Alex McCandless I got to know in the book. If Sean Penn managed to paint a more enlightened image of Alex, then he deviated from the book quite a bit.

  • Petra Eggs

    We are all heroes to ourselves. McCandless was, Krakauer is. This doesn't vary. All that varies is how we define heroism and how much, or how little, we are prepared to do to for that stance.

    In order to get people, usually young men, to sacrifice their lives we tell them of those that went before and tell them they were heroes who died for their countries, died for their principles, died even for their dreams. Impractical dreams that are the province of the young. And those who would be heroes n

    We are all heroes to ourselves. McCandless was, Krakauer is. This doesn't vary. All that varies is how we define heroism and how much, or how little, we are prepared to do to for that stance.

    In order to get people, usually young men, to sacrifice their lives we tell them of those that went before and tell them they were heroes who died for their countries, died for their principles, died even for their dreams. Impractical dreams that are the province of the young. And those who would be heroes never concern themselves with the practical, that is far too mundane, it is for others to take care of those details.

    McCandless' dream of heroism was to survive entirely alone and entirely off the land at the ends of the earth. It didn't include the practicality of learning about the wild foods he might forage in that area, or how he might survive in extreme weather conditions, or even exactly where his place of solitude was situated so that when he sought succour at the end, he didn't even know how close it really was.

    The final photograph he took of himself is of a wasted face, gaunt but beautiful with the shining eyes of one who has lived his dream and is satisfied. Then he died.

  • Melinda

    This book is a wonderful cautionary tale. I will probably read it again with my daughter when she is old enough to discuss it. Unfortunately, I'm afraid the reason most people will read the book and see the new upcoming movie, is for a different reason. Chris McCandless (in the book, and from what I understand in the movie), is a hero and courageous for flying in the face of everything he grew up with to find a better way. A young man unhappy with the materialism, hunger, and waste in the world;

    This book is a wonderful cautionary tale. I will probably read it again with my daughter when she is old enough to discuss it. Unfortunately, I'm afraid the reason most people will read the book and see the new upcoming movie, is for a different reason. Chris McCandless (in the book, and from what I understand in the movie), is a hero and courageous for flying in the face of everything he grew up with to find a better way. A young man unhappy with the materialism, hunger, and waste in the world; angry with his father for not being a perfect father to him; intellectually superior, a fantastic athlete in top condition... and yet a young man who died because of his own decisions and his own actions. He cut off ties to his family, hitchhiked and worked his way to Alaska, headed "into the wild" in April 1992, and was found dead in August 1992 most probably from starvation. How wonderful to "fight against the odds" and "ask real questions". Unfortunately, Chris didn't really fight against any odds, he took the easy way out by cutting off real relationships. Chris may have asked real questions, but he denied real people the opportunity to answer them in any way, because he had already decided what was "the right way". This is not heroic. It is immaturity. It is tragic and sad, yes, but not heroic or courageous.

    After reading the book, I think Chris died because he was foolish. Intellectually bright, yes. Athletically gifted, yes. But he had no wisdom. Wisdom has been defined as "skill in living", and wisdom is not always bestowed on the young and the healthy and the intellectually smart. The opposite of wisdom is foolishness. His anger and questioning drove him not to wisdom, but to self-reliance and an overweening arrogance in his own ability to "get through it". Well, we see the result of those decisions and those attitudes.... to quote Darwin, Chris is an example of how "survival of the fittest" applies. Chris was not "fit", therefore he did not "survive". But why wasn't he fit? He was smart and young and gifted in many ways, but he chose to abandon relationships and abandon those who loved him and create himself anew with no relationships and no ties. He walked away from people who loved him, made friends with people who came to love him, and walked away from all of that to find his answers "in the wild" on his own. The way away from love and relationship leads not to life, but indeed to death. And death is what Chris got.

    The book quotes Chris' mother as saying, "I haven't prayed since we lost him." (pg. 202) An older man who befriended Chris, Ronald Franz, also says, "When Alex left for Alaska, I prayed. I asked God to keep his finger on the shoulder of that one; I told him that boy was special. But he let Alex die. So on December 26, when I learned what had happened, I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist. I decided I couldn't believe in a God who would let something that terrible happen to a boy like Alex." (pg. 60) But God didn't do anything to Chris, except let him do as he wanted? If Chris sought real answers to his hard questions, God is there, and God can help, but you have to know you need help and submit to someone wiser than you. Chris McCandless never submitted willingly to anyone, and he certainly never admitted anyone else had teaching or wisdom for him. He was smarter than everyone else, better able to see the truth than anyone else. So the heritage Chris McCandless left is one that drives his mother to stop praying, and converts an old man to atheism. Is this the heritage anyone would want?

    So read this book, but read it with questions in mind. Why are we lauding a young man as a hero who was actually a foolish man? What kind of society are we in where real courage and real heroism are somehow playing 2nd fiddle to selfishness and arrogance? When are you so intellectually intelligent that you become stupid? Is there any time when foolish decisions could be called "courageous"? In a search for truth and what really matters in life, is it acceptable to think nothing of hurting those people who are most vulnerable to you? When you die, will the way you lived your life cause others to abandon their faith or grow in their faith? Is it ever courageous to be selfish and think only of yourself? Is it harder to walk away from a relationship, or to stay in a relationship and work on making it better? Would you ever teach anyone else that the way to have real relationships is to limit yourself only to those people who cannot ever hurt you?

    Real courage, real heroism comes when you love others and you serve others. Real courage has nothing selfish in it. Fathers and husbands who remain with their families and provide for them, even though they would rather have a mid-life crisis and leave it all, they are courageous and heroic. They remain, they work, they don't father or husband perfectly, but they remain in difficult relationships. It courageous to stay in the hard parts of life, and try. Mothers and wives who sacrifice and serve again and again and again without books being written about them, without thanks, but who continue to love and give of themselves to others. That is courageous. It is hard to stay in messy relationships. It is easy to leave. It is courageous to stay and do hard things. It is easy to leave and do what you want.

    So, let's read this book, but read it as a cautionary tale. This is what happens when you seemingly 'have it all', but have not love. When you die, will people be driven to become atheists? Will people stop praying when you are dead? Or will you live a life of wisdom and love? Will you leave behind you a heritage of godly love and service? Will people pray more because of the example you left them? Will they be more loving, better mothers or fathers or sisters or brothers? Or will they become angry and arrogant and foolishness? Yes, this is a good book to read. But let's read it for the right reasons and with the right questions.

    [NOTE: In the book, and in the movie, the author proposes that Chris ate some poison berries which caused his death. But tests have been made around the area, and plants that would have been available to Chris were tested, and no toxic berries or plants have been found. The truth is probably that he starved. Too few calories coming in, high expenditure of calories for hunting and keeping warm resulted eventually in such a calorie deficit that he died.]

    Some good articles I found on Chris McCandless include:

    Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian wrote: “I am exposed continually to what I will call the ‘McCandless Phenomenon.’ People, nearly always young men, come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving wilderness landscape where convenience of access and possibility of rescue are practically nonexistent […:] When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn’t even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate. First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail without even a map of the area. If he [had:] had a good map he could have walked out of his predicament […:] Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide.”[18:] Some may argue that this is what he wanted all along, given his troubled past

    ****************

    An update as of Sept 2013 as to how McCandless died. See

    which documents the poison contained in wild potato seeds. Consuming these seeds introduces a neurotoxin into the body which results in lathyrism. This condition causes gradual paralysis which ultimately made McCandless very weak, unable to stand or walk, and thus unable to forage or hunt for food.

  • Matt

    I live a life, I suspect, that is much like yours. Wake up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, go to bed. At the end of this weekly desert, there might be a drink or ten to celebrate the victory over another five days of soul-crushing drudgery.

    I am a desk jockey. A paper pusher. I mean that literally; I sit in my office, and when people peer inside, they will see me moving a sheet of paper from one side to the other. It looks, to the untrained eye, like valuable labor.

    When I get the chance, tho

    I live a life, I suspect, that is much like yours. Wake up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, go to bed. At the end of this weekly desert, there might be a drink or ten to celebrate the victory over another five days of soul-crushing drudgery.

    I am a desk jockey. A paper pusher. I mean that literally; I sit in my office, and when people peer inside, they will see me moving a sheet of paper from one side to the other. It looks, to the untrained eye, like valuable labor.

    When I get the chance, though, I head to the mountains, to the wild. I love the away-ness of these trips. At the risk of sounding absurdly curmudgeonly, I like getting away from the crush of humanity (and I'm sure the crush of humanity appreciates my temporary absence).

    There was at time when my friends and I would head out west every summer. We picked a destination (isolated, challenging), packed the car, and plunged into the wilderness. We undertook silly risks, because we were younger and we laughed at consequences, or at the possibility that there were consequences. Once, a little later on, we gathered around a campfire, four of us, and swore - like characters from a young adult novel - that we'd always do this: that we'd always head out to the mountains together.

    Then we got older. My friends married, they started having kids, and the mountains became a memory, a slideshow of pictures that showed up on the screen savers of our computers. Friends with whom I'd jumped off cliffs, slid down glaciers, and climbed rocks matured overnight into sober professionals, husbands, and fathers. It was remarkable how age engendered caution, and squelched the desire for adventure.

    That was my mindset when I picked up

    .

    Jon Krakauer's classic is, to put it mildly, a polarizing book. Based on the people I've surveyed, I've found that you either love it or you hate it, and whether you love it or hate it will be determined by what you think about Christopher McCandless, the young man at the center of

    . You will be taken in by Chris's literate, philosophical, iconoclastic, boundary-pushing vagabondism. Or you will be sickened by his selfishness, his self-pity, and the way he left a shattered family in his wake.

    Either way, you will have a vivid response.

    Upon graduating from Emory University, and instead of going on to law school (which was my choice), McCandless gave away $25,000 to charity and began his life as a tramp (or hobo, as they sometimes like to be called). I was in sixth grade when McCandless walked into the Alaskan wilderness and never returned. He was 24.

    The power of

    is directly attributable to Krakauer's empathy for his subject. Krakauer is a solid adventure writer, but he's not a prose stylist. Rather, he uses his own life experiences to connect with Chris on a very intimate, personal level. He does not attempt any faux objectivity that is often the hallmark of "serious" serious journalism. Instead, Krakauer admits, straight up, that he saw his younger self in Chris, with the exception that Krakauer survived his youth, while Chris did not. For instance, there is an autobiographical section in

    where Krakauer tells his story about climbing the Devil's Thumb. This could easily have been a self-serving digression, but Krakauer uses that experience, and the vividness of his memory, to explore the the compulsions that drove Chris McCandless to follow his unique path to his destiny.

    I think Chris, in his own way, was a towering figure; he was the person I would like to be, if I had more guts and less excuses. He was a smart kid, a college grad, who came from money. His parents were messed up, but really, whose parents aren't? After college, instead of going to law school (don't go to law school, by the way), he gave away $25,000, burned his credit cards, and set out to see the west.

    Whatever else you call him, you can't call him a poser. Like everyone, he had his share of dreams and demons, and he set out to follow his dreams and fight his demons. There's something to be said for what he put his parent through. Still, the world forces us to be our own person. He went forward the best way he knew how, defining himself along the way. The tragedy, of course, is that the lessons he learned - about the value of friends and family - he learned too late.

    I don't really need to defend Chris. Krakauer does that. He is unabashedly in his corner, defending his choices, his skills, his desire to go alone to the far places, like John Muir before him. Chris McCandless was himself, fully and completely, which is saying a lot, in this day and age. Or any day and age. He was part adventurer, part philosopher, and part monk (the monk part fascinates Krakauer, who spends a lot of time wondering whether Chris died a virgin).

    I suppose a brief note on the movie, directed by Sean Penn, is in order. While I found it poetic and inspiring, the movie focuses too much on Chris's effect on the various people he meets on his journeys. In a way, Chris becomes some kind of wandering apostle, healing and helping those he meets along his path, before he dies a martyr's death in Alaska, a vision from a Don Maclean song ("the world was never meant for one as beautiful as you..."). The book, on the other hand, keeps Chris firmly grounded as a human being. Krakauer admires Chris, to be sure, but he does not neglect the warts. (However, Krakauer sharply dismisses those armchair psychiatrists who want to diagnose Chris with a mental disorder. I'm glad he does. I think it's saying soemething about the conformity of our society that anyone who bucks the trend (he gave up law school!?) is called mad).

    In the end, Chris was one of those rare people who wanted to know the world intimately, and in the process of discovering those secrets, was killed by that same world. Maybe there was something quixotic or foolish in his quest; maybe he should have taken a job, taken a wife, found a safe desk behind which to grow old. Or maybe there is something foolish in us, to believe that we can outlive the world with our caution.


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