Into the Wild was published in 1996, the year I turned twenty-six. The doomed wanderer of the book, Christopher McCandless (also known as Alexander Supertramp), was twenty-four years old when he died alone in an abandoned bus on the Alaskan tundra, the end of a lengthy vagabond journey that could either be viewed as needlessly foolhardy or poetically at odds with social norms and expectations. While the extra couple of decades that have passed have softened my memory enough to prevent me from pinpointing the exact motivation when I purchased a hardcover copy of Jon Krakauer’s book from my local Border’s (a period detail to help emphasize how long ago it was!), but I suspect the relative closeness of my age to that of McCandless had something to do with it. Not that there weren’t plenty of other reasons out there, including a bevy of glowing reviews, but I think I found something eminently relatable in someone on the cusp of adulthood breaking out into the freedom of a dangerous world, even though — or maybe especially because — the path of McCandless was so different from any I would ever dare to follow.
Whatever reasoning brought me to the book, it was the detailed, thoughtful reporting and clear, direct writing of Krakauer is what locked me in on it. As a writer best known for his work in Outside magazine, he was someone I was fairly unlikely to find. It was that very distance between his chief area of expertise and my typical interests that solidified my conviction that he was a writer I needed to follow. His next book, like Into the Wild first introduced as a lengthy cover story in Outside, covered a notoriously disastrous trek up Mount Everest in May 1996. As opposed to Krakauer’s attempts to unearth details of the solitude of McCandless, he was a firsthand witness to the events of Into Thin Air, climbing the mountain in part thanks to an assignment from his editors. That led to some controversy as others disputed Krakauer’s assertions about mistakes or other ill-considered choices as the tragedy transpired, but the overall sensation of the work was of a masterful reporter turning his talent for investigation upon himself and his own experiences.
By his own accounting somewhat chastened by the massive success of Into Thin Air, Krakauer hasn’t exactly been prolific since that book’s publication in 1997. But he’s turned his attention to more compelling, challenging tasks, such as Under the Banner of Heaven, his staggering explication of the history, tenets, and enduring troublesome aspects of Mormonism, especially the groups, officially disassociated with the church proper, that practice a more fundamentalist strain of the faith. It’s an exhausting, compelling read, daring in its analysis and connections. The evident responsibility that Krakauer feels in there on every page, in every damning passage, and yet it’s clearly committed to truthfulness, even sympathy. Some of the struggles Krakauer had in completing his book on Pat Tillman, Where Men Win Glory, (the book’s original release was delayed for almost a year because the author was unhappy with it) seem to speak to that meticulous belief in the value and necessity of honest, of plainly getting it right. That may actually be what I appreciate the most about Krakauer. That resolute accuracy feels like a pact he’s made with me as the reader.
—Doris Kearns Goodwin