#9 Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
I have a lot of shameful stories about books I should have read at a time in my life, but for some inane reason I did not. I mean, I guess I have a lot of not-so-shameful stories about not reading books, too. Ask me about the time I didn’t read War and Peace – yeah, I would probably be a better, more literate person if I’d muscled through my assigned reading back in undergrad, but I’m not ashamed about skirting that required reading. In fact, I’m kind of smarmy about it.
Ages ago, when I was still a Little Jessica, my darling, mountain-climbing-book reading mother bought me a copy of Into Thin Air for Christmas. I was probably in high school. I had probably never read a nonfiction book that I could get into. Mostly I didn’t want to read it because it was a…. mass market paperback. Ick.
I didn’t read my first Jon Krakauer until I was in my early twenties. It was Under the Banner of Heaven. I was in love. I think I found it on my mother-in-law’s book shelves while I was in the middle of my Mormon Fascination. I was primed for this book – it was exactly up my alley. But while I read (or, more likely, devoured) this book, I was aware of being taken in not just by the subject matter but by the narrative voice. It’s hard for me to describe Krakauer’s particular, singular narrative skill. He writes with an impartial journalistic eye, but he turns the camera around to examine his own life often enough that you get a feel for him as a character. Then he shifts from journalist to narrator, guiding the reader through information and into new environments with a steady hand. Reading a Krakauer book is like talking to your most fascinating friend – the one who tells the best stories – and she’s launching into a really good one.
Have a fawned over the author enough? Well I suppose I could also tell you a little bit about the book, in case you’ve been encased in carbonite for a few decades and missed this bestseller. Seriously. Sorry, Mom. I really should have read it! Into Thin Air is a story about high-altitude mountain climbing – in particular, it’s about Krakauer’s first attempt to peak Mt. Everest, which became one of the deadliest Everest expeditions in years. I will never climb a mountain. I have never been interested in climbing mountains. I don’t really understand why people would even want to risk their health and safety to climb mountains. But Krakauer writes in a way that pulled me into just those moral questions. Why do humans – repeatedly and throughout time – take their lives into their own hands in order to pursue the unknown? Or to chase a pleasant moment or memory? What toll does it take on the environment, or indigenous cultures? What – or who – is sacrificed to make mountain climbing possible? Who holds the blame when disaster strikes? The story he tells is brutal and detailed and devastating – you really get to know all of the climbers, and Krakauer paced the book in a way that I’d forgotten just how awful the ending was going to be. This is pretty much everything I want when I open up a nonfiction book. I recommend you not wait ten years from now to pick this one up.