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A 1996 book by Jon Krakauer, based on a 1993 article he wrote for Outside Magazine.

In the summer of 1992, the body of Chris McCandless was found in the wilderness of Alaska. McCandless, 24, had apparently starved to death after spending the winter and spring living in an abandoned public transit bus. A journal was found near his body.

Using the journal, Krakauer set out to figure out what drives McCandless and others like him to live at the fringes of society. After graduating from Emory University, McCandless gave away most of his possessions and $24,000 of his life savings, then drove to the southwest, where he abandoned his car in the desert, burned all of his remaining cash, and renamed himself Alexander Supertramp.

After traveling on foot and hitchhiking through the southwest, McCandless eventually heads north in search of the kind of adventure that's not available in the lower 48. Krakauer retraces the journey, talking to people McCandless met on the way.

In his journal, McCandless writes about his desire for adventure, and a deep need to experience the wilderness like Jack London or John Muir. He clearly wants to test himself, to find some kind of meaning in looking death in the face and living by his wits. McCandless' failure at this test, in the end, was tragic and avoidable.

Krakauer feels a tremendous affinity for McCandless, and has similar motivations. After spending an entire obsessive year researching this book, however, it turns out that his level of introspection isn't enough to prevent him from traveling down the same road, and experiencing an even greater tragedy which he chronicles in Into Thin Air.


This book was required reading for my English 110 class in the spring of 2003, and it remains on my bookshelf to this day. Krakauer's presentation of the story of Christopher McCandless is in no way unbiased or objective -- but Krakauer never claims it as either, and in many ways that makes all the difference.

Introducing McCandless in a way that shows him as a regular person -- a neighbor, your brother, or even yourself -- could not have been the easiest way for Krakauer to write this book, but it was the only responsible way to write it, and it is performed beautifully. McCandless's larger-than-life story suddenly becomes manageable, and Chris is someone you can empathize with, if not exactly feel sympathy for, which is really just as well; if one thing is clear, it is that McCandless was not the sort of person who would respond to or respect sympathy.

Krakauer relates to McCandless on a certain deep, viseral level; at times this allows him to provide valuable insight into McCandless's motivations, it can also act like a pair of blinders. Krakauer never acknowledges the sheer irresponsibility some of McCandless's actions -- not the least of which include venturing into the Alaskan backcountry without a map, proper clothing, and neither enough food or the knowledge to properly glean some from the environment in the (some would say inevitable) event of an emergency.

The book is an attempt to determine whether Chris McCandless was "a courageous idealist, or a reckless idiot." Although it is clear that he has already made up his own mind, Krakauer doesn't force the issue, and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusion. McCandless certainly had the courage of his convictions -- as much cannot be said about many idealists, reckless or no. Not to take anything away from Walden, but Thoreau was not much more than an afternoon's walk outside of Concord. One can admire his conviction and question his hubris -- and there is enough of both to go around -- but McCandless remains tantalizingly difficult to define. Krakauer comes close without turning the book into a lecture on the vitues of the buddy system -- which, in the hands of a less talented author, it might easily have become.

ISBN: 0385486804

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