I’d heard of this book some time ago, but it was in no way on my reading list. Then some day I noticed that someone I follow on Goodread wanted to read it, and I immediately felt an urge to check it out.
I have always been fascinated by untamed nature, and this is pretty much the theme of the whole book.
The book was written in the 1997 by Jon Krakauer and is a thorough investigation of what happened to a young man named Chris McCandles who chose to travel alone and poorly prepared into the rough parts of Alaska. He managed to survive there for several months but eventually starved to death, a gruesome process he documented in some detail in his diary.
It is a fascinating story for sure. What makes a young, intelligent and relatively well-educated man flee civilization to live off of the land? Why was he not better prepared? And finally, why was he unable to save himself when he realised that he was unable to gather enough food?
McCandles had travelled a lot even before venturing into Alaska, and Krakauer tracked down and interviewed many of the people he came into contact with along his way. The book contains lots of quotes from these people, but ultimately it all amounts to: We don’t know why he did it. Many reflections but no facts. Which is not a problem in the least. I knew from page one that the book would not explain everything.
One thing I really enjoyed (and was quite surprised by) is that Krakauer was (and perhaps still is) himself a very accomplished climber. He spends many pages describing one of his own adventures, and he does so very well. In fact the book becomes so much more detailed and colorful here - naturally since this is a first hand account. The contrast to the rest of the book is great since McCandles’ last months and death cannot be described in nearly as much detail. Reading Krakauer’s account of one of his own harrowing adventures was quite fascinating. I could absolutely feel the hunger and the cold as I read through that part of the book.
Towards the end of the book though, it completely changes style as Krakauer dives deeply into exactly what Chris McCandles died from. He was weak and hungry, and his journal contained some hints toward his daily diet. But apparently it did not seem plausible that he died simply from hunger (although if I recall correctly, the post-mortem was unable to establish the cause of death).
I think it is fair to say that Krakauer had become obsessed with discovering the circumstances of McCandles’ death. And eventually - when including a 2015 afterword - he does get to the bottom of it (since the book is 20 years old, I don’t mind spoiling it: Chris ate something he shouldn’t have).
But in my opinion, the cost for the reader of this clarity is too great. Several pages towards the end go into excruciating scientific detail about botany and chemistry, amino acids and other concepts I have happily forgotten since putting down the book yesterday. This may appeal to some readers, but definitely not me.
However I did find the other two main styles of the book to be very good.
The point I am getting at is this: I do not think that many readers will enjoy every part of this book. The recount of McCandles’ travels, the philosophical musings about his motives, the personal story of an adventure nearly gone wrong, and finally the lecture on the hazards of seemingly innocuous plants found in the wild of Alaska. These passages of the book seem to appeal to very different audiences.
I definitely enjoyed reading this book and I do not hesitate to recommend it to others. But I was quite bored by the more scientific parts, and I’d recommend skimming through them as quickly as I did.