I think I first read Into the Wild in 2007. To say I enjoyed it is to confuse it with saying I read it quickly and continued to think about – perhaps too much – long after I’d put it back on the shelf. It’s hard to “enjoy” a story like the one that book tells. It’s quite another thing to be moved by it, which I suppose is the closest I can come to describing the daze it seemed to put me in for the few days after turning its final page.
The difference between a good book and liking a book wasn’t something I was fully aware of until I joined the Peace Corps and was given more time to read than I’d ever encountered in my life. Struggling my way through The Sheltering Sky was when I had the realization. Paul Bowles’ book is no doubt quiet good, but I really didn’t enjoy reading it.
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is another interesting if not more complex example. At nearly 1000 pages it has its share of parts that are highly enjoyable and parts that you’d wish you could erase from your memory. A masterpiece surely, but “enjoyable”, definitely not.
Neither of those two books I’d comfortably say have had the audience amongst my peers as Jon Krakauer’s telling of a young man from Virginia who decided to see if he could make it on his own in Alaska and failed. That readership is probably why it comes as close to any other book I can think of to garnering the amount of strong opinions people seem to have about it. (Case in point: this post).
To me though, the synopsis above misses the larger part of the story. The process by which he met his ends, the realizations along the way and why we as readers – comfortably (or not so comfortably) sitting in our homes – find the need to pass a mark of success or failure upon a complete strangers endeavor.
Like the good book argument the discussion about Into the Wild in general seems to revolve around only part of what’s on offer. The main concern being the liking or hating of Chris McCandless. After a second read (something I’m not sure I’ve ever done – when you read as slow as I do, it’s really an investment) I maintain my original stance: disliking Chris and his decisions is not at the detriment of the story or the much larger themes it contains. It’s still a good book. And it’s still a great story.
The problem arises because it’s very hard to be neutral about where you ultimately stand on Chris’ decisions. You can either see why he did what he did, or you cannot. It would be unreasonable to argue McCandless wasn’t flawed in many of his actions, but it would be equally unreasonable to overlook that we are all flawed individuals – in McCandless’ view, many of us for the reason that we chose not to live out the convictions we tell ourselves we hold. Where you come down on that decision seems to speak volumes.