into the wild discussion

Last Friday was the first meeting of this year’s book discussion group here at the library. In the past, the library has always done one of the book discussions offered by the Wyoming Humanities Council, but this year we decided to do our own. The theme (roughly) is books in which people have adventures, and we started things off with Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.

I was extremely nervous going into this discussion, because I have bad memories of teaching undergraduates, which often (though not always) consists of standing in front of the class (or sitting in a circle with the class, if you want to be more 2.0), asking questions and then waiting during the long, pregnant pauses that follow, hoping that someone will have a) read the material and b) have something (anything!) to say about it. So I went in armed with background information on Jon Krakauer (from the online version of Contemporary Authors) and Chris McCandless (from around the web) and lots of questions.

As it turns out, I had a lively group of ten women who were ready and eager to dive into the discussion (and the cookies from the Meeteetse Chocolatier, which we got thanks to the generosity of the Park County Library Foundation), and I asked scarcely any of the questions I had prepared. The biggest surprise? At one point, I mentioned that Chris McCandless has a Wikipedia entry. “A what?” several people said. No one in the group had heard of Wikipedia. Sometimes it’s worth being reminded, in the midst of our discussions about making the library part of the online world, that not all of our patrons are online. As Jessamyn so rightly points out, part of the digital divide is not living in an Internet-aware culture. Part of being a librarian is realizing when that is the case and understanding when, and whether, it’s a problem. I love Wikipedia (for some purposes) as much as the next person, but I also think it is possible to live a full, rich, and satisfying life without it. And the library is here to serve both kinds of people.

Though I didn’t use most of my discussion questions, I thought I would post them for anyone else who might find them useful. They’re free to all under a Creative Commons non-commercial share-alike license.

Discussion Questions for Into the Wild

1. Did you find the book suspenseful? Why or why not?

2. Krakauer’s original article for Outside was called “Death of an Innocent.” He introduced Chapter 12, which includes Chris McCandless’s discovery of his father’s infidelity, with a quotation from GK Chesterton: “For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.” Who is guilty in this story, if anyone? Do they deserve justice or mercy?

3. What do you think about

  • Chris’s relationship with his father?
  • the female characters in the book? (Carine, Billie, Jan Burres [p. 30, 41-46], Gail Borah [p. 63, Wayne Westerberg’s girlfriend]
  • the other adventerurers/explorers/crazy people? (Gene Rosellini [p. 73, attempted Stone Age living], John Waterman [p. 75, climber who went crazy], Carl McCunn [p. 80, guy who forgot to arrange plane to take him out], Everett Ruess [p. 87, Utah explorer], Papar monks [p. 97])
  • the structure of the book and its chronology? How does Krakauer go about telling Chris’s story?

4. Sherry Simpson writes: “Jon Krakauer made up a story about him, by way of telling his own, and every pilgrim since his death has shaped him into something different as well. I’m doing it right now, too.” How much of the story is McCandless’s, and how much is Krakauer’s?

5. Krakauer called his book Into the Wild, which, among other things, sounds a lot like Jack London’s Call of the Wild, one of McCandless’s favorite books. Thoreau noted that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” What is “the wild”? Is it the same as wilderness?

6. Krakauer describes Chris as living in a “monkish room” but as wanting to feel the “raw throb of existence” and “wallow in unfiltered experience.” What do you make of that contrast?

7. The American Alpine Club estimates that there are about 250,000 climbers and 10-40 climbing fatalities in the US each year. Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air is an account of the deaths of 9 people on Mount Everest. What is it about extreme adventure that draws some people in? Is the pursuit of such extremes selfish or admirable?

Finally, as a last resort, I thought I might read this most famous passage from Walden, which isn’t quoted in Into the Wild but which very well could be:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Thoreau, from “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” in Walden