Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Reading for Pleasure - Into The Wild

In response to my post entitled Mountain Rescue Doctor, a reader comments: "I'd like to hear what other books Dr. Auerbach has enjoyed reading."

I'm going to continue to offer book reviews from time to time. I don't have a tremendous amount of time for "recreational reading," so while some of these books may have been in print for a while, I feel that they would be of interest for readers of this blog. And sometimes, I may not have enjoyed reading them very much - I will let you know when that is the case.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is at times an absorbing tale of a young man's adventure-gone-wrong in Alaska, and at other times a bit of a ramble about the author's perception of the meaning of his own existence. It is well written, because Krakauer is a very good writer, but I found it easy to note the differences in intensity and spirit of the writing when the author moved from his description of Christopher McCandless (moderately intense) to writing about his own experiences (very intense) to providing brief (and comparatively sterile) accounts of other persons whose adventures had gone awry.

The main character is Chris McCandless, a recent college graduate, who abandoned his middle class life of privilege to become a wanderer, ultimately destined to experience solitude and death by starvation in the wilds of Alaska. Krakauer did extensive research about McCandless, his family, and some of the more poignant interactions he had with strangers during his migration across America and up to Alaska. It is more of a personality study than a tale of adventure, because what McCandless essentially accomplished was to walk into the woods, take up residence in an abandoned bus, become stranded and fail to survive because he could not procure adequate food, did not let anyone know where he was, and was not aware that help was within reach had he known where to seek it. It is a sad tale of personal struggle. The deceased had emotional demons, and could not successfully manage them. His family is portrayed in real terms by Krakauer, and I found all of my sympathies with them at the conclusion of the book. McCandless took a partially-educated chance by choosing to rely upon a very basic knowledge of survival, and as much as he, his family and acquaintances paid the price.

When the author draws a parallel between a particular climbing experience of his youth and the activities of McCandless, his writing took on all the nuances and color that I would have liked to see within the rest of the book. It became immediately obvious that the story became as much about Krakauer as about McCandless, and since the author could truly recall his emotions, while he could only hypothesize about the feelings and motivations of McCandless, the writing was richer and more explanatory. Amidst the truisms about the mindset of young men, there are touches of disenfranchisement and narcissism. These are not off-putting, and perhaps demonstrate how a very good writer can bring a reader to a precise place and time.

In the end, it is a case study of a man driven by a certain psychological profile rather than a mystery, tale of exploration, or treatise on self preservation in the wilderness. I actually enjoyed the movie as much as the book, because it stayed the course by focusing only on McCandless. I am a fan of Jon Krakauer and like many other readers have enjoyed Into Thin Air and Under The Banner of Heaven. Into The Wild is a book worth reading, particularly for young men and women who seek to set off on their own into the wilderness for more than a few days. No one is invulnerable, and everyone should be prepared.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.