Into the Wild is the account of the life of Christopher McCandless as written by Jon Krakauer. Christopher McCandless graduated from university in 1990. After his graduation, he gave away all his money, tore up his credit cards and drove off in his Datsun without telling his parents where he was going. He traveled around for two years, living on the streets mostly, and ended up in Alaska, where he lived off the land for four months before dying of starvation.
This is not a review of the book, or a review of Christopher McCandless actions which led to his death, but more a collection of my thoughts that were provoked in reading the book. Jon Krakauer has done a tremendous job documenting McCandless life after he gave up everything and he has tried hard to keep the book objective. The fact that this book provoked mostly irritation is by no means because of a bad writing style.
I think that Chris McCandless was very resourceful and very brave. I think he was also very selfish and very naive. And he is by no means the only young American man who thought that living on the street would be helping the poor. Giving away all your money (although it is debatable how much of that money was given to him by his parents) in order to know what it is like to be destitute is naive. People on the fringes of society are generally there because of misfortune, not because they choose to be there. Trying to live a non-materialistic lifestyle is admirable, and more of us should do so, but living on the street is taking it a bit too far, in my opinion. If you really are upset about the misdistribution of wealth, and you want to do something about inequality in society, then I don’t think that living on the street, not paying taxes, being dependent on the goodness of other, hard-working people will help much with that. It will only really help you have some sort of soul-searching experience, which may be great for you, but doesn’t really help all the poor and destitute people on the planet.
Most people like McCandless make their decisions based on the fact that they want to live their dream. They have a romanticised idea about the (American) wilderness, about living with very few belongings and next to no money, taking each day as it comes. Apart from being irritated by this book, I also did feel inspired. It is admirable that McCandless just left his cushy life and chose a life of hardship, because that was his dream. Now, I am a cynic. I don’t really believe in living your dreams. At the end of the day, you still need food on the table, a roof over your head and some clothing. And I am not selfish enough to rely on the generosity of other people, who have forsaken their dream in order to be able to afford the basic necessities in life, just so I can live my dream. I also have two young children, who need to be fed, clothed and who need shelter (although I admit they don’t need the playroom full of toys they currently have). So while I certainly admire people who give everything up to live their dream, I also think that if everyone did so, the world would fall down.
One of my favourite movies, Office Space, has a scene where the characters ask each other “If you have a million dollars, what would you do?” The idea is that whatever you would do if you did not have to work for a living is what you should do for your job. One of the characters rightfully points out that this is stupid: if everyone did the job they dreamed of, you would never get garbage collectors, as no one would want to do that job. It was certainly never my dream to be a tax accountant, but I have a good job, nice people to work with and a paycheque at the end of the day that keeps my life comfortable. If you’d ask me what I would do if I didn’t have to work for a living, I would say “write and edit”. I find I like the writing part, but even though I am still plodding through the editing, I do not enjoy it and at the end of the day I wish I had more energy to actually sit down and do a proper job. As it stands now, it is probably going to take a year before my book is properly edited and rewritten, but that is okay. I work full time, so the rest will just have to trail along according to my energy levels.
So…in writing all this I think I have identified the source of my irritation with Into the Wild. I think that there is so much emphasis on following your dreams, and doing the things you want to do irrespective of how that will affect others. I am not saying we should all be stuck in a miserable existence and we should not ever endeavour to rise above it all, but we have responsibilities, and other people to think of. (Unless of course you are absolutely alone in the world, in which case, poor you.) Even Chris McCandless realised in the Alaskan wilderness that happiness is not real unless it’s shared. I couldn’t justify giving up a good paying job and moving into a trailer with my family just so I could follow my dream to become a writer. For one, my dream does emphatically not involve a trailer and two, I couldn’t expect my family to also give everything up just so that I can live my dreams. But maybe I am too practical and responsible and old, or maybe I am too attached to my comfortable life. Or maybe I am simply not passionate enough about being a writer.