Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air

Yep, I've leapt into the late 90s: I can cross off my reading list Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. (Man climbs well and likes it; man becomes journalist; man cadges way onto Everest expedition; most other members of the expedition die on a single horrifying day when he manages the summit.)

I'll resist the temptation to make fun of the no doubt publisher-enforced subtitle, because the book's content is after all searing and the writing is after all powerful, but ... "the Mt. Everest Disaster"? There's only been one? As Krakauer says in a late chapter, this allegedly disastrous year had 12 deaths among the 398 climbers who went higher than base camp, which is slightly lower than the average death rate of 3.3% (p. 357).

This review is a decade too late, but this book deserves most of the good press it got. I was so hooked by it, by the characters and the struggle and the details details details. As a kid I read and loved sports novels (Chip Hilton: Clutch Hitter -- no, I'm not kidding), and that has certainly coloured my reading habits. Krakauer's version of nonfiction reaches back to those books, for me, linking sports-page statmania with the psychological and philosophic meaning of the physical world. I'm not going to go all Buddhist, or materialist for that matter, but here are a few words from Scott Russell Sanders about contemporary fiction:
No matter how urban our experience, no matter how oblivious we may be toward nature, we are nonetheless animals, two-legged sacks of meat and blood and bone dependent on the whole living planet for our survival. ("Speaking a Word for Nature," in Glotfelty & Fromm's Ecocriticism Reader, p 194)
Russell is in no way talking about Krakauer or this book, but his words line up pretty well, I'd say, with the experience Krakauer writes of (conjures up?). These characters, especially those who barely survive, echo and call up a whole tradition of suffering and penitence, of awareness and sensitivity, that enrich considerably what would otherwise be a straightforward tale of life and death in the mountains.

There's a terrific chapter about blame, about why he survived when others died. He takes the blame for some deaths, lets others blame him (even quoting substantial portions of letters from family members of those who died and blame him for their deaths), and assigns some responsibility to others. It's naked, gripping stuff, and it exemplifies why this book exceeds plain old adventure writing.

(Mind you, is there such a thing as "plain old adventure writing"? Genres are illusions anyway, but it's rare that a nonfiction book is published without some reach toward the meaning beyond the materialities we walk through daily.)

It's no Banner in the Sky, mind you, but then there was only one James Ramsay Ullman....


I loved that book. I also liked his very disturbing/depressing "under the banner of heaven."

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