Into Thin Air

By Jon Krakauer

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I don’t know how to feel about ‘Into Thin Air’.

‘Into Thin Air’ is Jon Krakauer’s memoir of the 1996 attempt on Everest which resulted in the deaths of five climbers. Krakauer, who is an experienced climber and mountaineer, was commissioned by Outside magazine to write a piece on a guided summit. He went up with a company called Adventure Consultants, led by celebrated climber and guide Rob Hall. During their summit attempt, they were surprised by a blizzard. Ultimately, four members of the Adventure Consultants group perished on the mountain, as well as the lead of another climbing service, Scott Fischer. Fischer was also a famous mountaineer and he ran a company called Mountain Madness.

Krakauer’s role in the disaster is complicated, about which fact he is very forthright. He was a customer, not a guide, and so not responsible for the lives on that climb. However, in his hypoxic state, he wrongly ID’ed another climber and asserted that the man had made it safely back to camp. This turned out not to be true, and that other climber died, a fact for which Krakauer holds himself partly responsible.

It’s natural, when a disaster happens, to look for someone to blame. Krakauer avoids doing this outright, which is admirable, I think. He steadfastly insists that everyone associated with both climber-led expeditions was on the mountain with the best of intentions, and that the intense conditions and lack of oxygen on top of the mountain compromise anyone’s ability to make decisions.

On the other hand, he does spend a significant portion of time making sidewise, blame-y comments along the lines of: “It’s hard to know why such an experienced guide would make such an irresponsible decision”, “We can only speculate about why he decided to ignore the turn-around time. Whatever his reasons, the results were catastrophic.” Those comments may technically be blameless, but they are also judgmental. They leave the reader with the distinct impression that Krakauer has opinions, if not about who is to blame, then at least about who made the situation worse.

And by the way, that might be OK: he was there, he’s allowed to have opinions about something that happened to him. The difficulty comes from the fact that his memoir has become, in the popular imagination, a matter of fact*. It was huge bestseller; it was adapted into a movie. Krakauer’s authorial skill and confidence have ensured that his account is the account.

*It is worth noting that several other members of the two expeditions also wrote memoirs, but none of them achieved the popularity or staying power of Krakauer’s.

Jon Krakauer

And that might be a problem, because a convincing narrator is not necessarily an honest one, or even an accurate one. I do not mean to imply either that Krakauer is wrong or lying – I only mean that I cannot tell whether or not he is. And because he is such a good storyteller, I get caught up in the narrative and forget to think critically.

Krakauer is both a great narrator AND a convincing witness, and that is a powerful and dangerous combination. He delivers his tale with confidence, clarity, and excellent pacing, while infusing it with a first person perspective that is characterized by humility and self-examination.

It’s a really winning combination. The story itself is deeply compelling already – Krakauer’s writing craft turns it into a page turner, which begs the question: should it be?

I’ll admit it: I really liked ‘Into Thin Air’, both times I’ve read it. I think it’s a fabulous book: it’s well-written, it does a excellent job explaining and clarifying, and the story it tells is absolutely gripping. I am not a huge one for stories of men in the wilderness, but ‘Into Thin Air’ is incredibly entertaining.

And I’m not faulting Krakauer, at all. On the contrary, I would consider myself a Krakauer fan. I’ve read multiple of his books; I’ve enjoyed and admired everything of his that I have ever read. He belongs to that category of author who, when I see their name on a book, it makes me way more likely to read it.

But I read Krakauer like he’s a novelist: all my critical faculties go to sleep, I get lost in the story and just go with the flow. It’s fun that way, and he has the strength to carry you along. But he’s not a novelist – he’s a reporter, and a memoirist. We ought, surely, to be applying the same critical lens to his writing that we would to a newspaper piece.

Or maybe not. I might be overthinking it: maybe ‘Into Thin Air’ is a story, a book meant to entertain me. Yes, it technically happened to some people, but it didn’t happen to me, and the truth is that I will never know what happened on the top of that mountain. Perhaps I can relax my attachment to reality and just enjoy a book.

That is a real possibility, by the way: that I ought to just relax. It’s ok to just be entertained sometimes – not everything needs to be distilled for Meaning. I don’t need to tie myself in knots trying to figure out how to responsibly enjoy a first-person narrative.

I have no personal stake in how accurate ‘Into Thin Air’ is, whether Krakauer is fair or right or not. That is unknown and unknowable to me. In fact, I don’t really care how accurate it is, and that is precisely what worries me. I have been lulled into critical suspension, persuaded to just go with the flow and be entertained.

But I do think that there is a difference, in this regard, between fiction and non-fiction. As compelling a book as ‘Into Thin Air’ is, simply from a plot perspective, it describes a real event that happened to real people. We may forget facts, but we remember stories, and when something is memorable and compelling, we are more likely to remember it. Over time, it becomes true for us, whether or not it should be. So, in my opinion, we have a responsibility to pay attention when facts are presented to us as story. And ‘Into Thin Air’ is the ultimate facts-as-story book.

Maybe I’m just trying to remind myself that it is OK to love a story while still reading it with one eye open. I don’t have to solve everything. ‘Into Thin Air’ is a great read. It’s a really good book, whether or not it’s a True Story. Perhaps that’s enough.

Dust Tracks On A Road

By Zora Neale Hurston

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It is one of life’s great mercies that we are not forced to live by the opinions we held as teenagers.

Like many American teenagers, I was forced to read ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘ in high school.  I hated it.  I don’t really remember why now, but I know that I developed for that book a particular antipathy that was personal and intense, and colored my view of the author.  I didn’t just hate ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’, I decided; I also hated Zora Neale Hurston.

Then, a few years ago, I read the ‘The Best American Essays of the Century‘ anthology, and it included an essay by Hurston, written in 1928, called ‘How It Feels To Be Colored Me’.  It’s a short, funny little essay, and I loved it.  I loved her voice, and her point of view, and I began to wonder whether I might have been wrong to assign her a role as a literary nemesis.

About a year later, I read ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow‘, by Wade Davis, about Haitian zombies (which are real, as in real zombies, yes, zombies are real, read the book, it’ll all be explained), and he mentioned, almost out of hand, that much of the earliest work documenting the existence of zombies, and gaining access to the secret societies which produce them, had been done by an anthropologist named, you guessed it, Zora Neale Hurston.

Dust Tracks on a RoadSo, a few weeks ago, when I saw a beautiful, bright yellow copy of her memoir, ‘Dust Tracks on a Road‘ (honestly, it’s a jewel of an edition – you want to eat it, not read it), I decided to give Zora Neale Hurston the chance she should have gotten when I was in high school.

Hurston published ‘Dust Tracks on a Road‘ in 1942, when she was 51 (she would die in 1960, at the age of 69).  It is her telling of her own life, sometimes chronologically, sometimes thematically.  It was an interesting life, and would make for interesting telling regardless, but Hurston doesn’t spend as much time on the plotty parts (her two marriages, her time in Haiti and Bermuda and driving around the Deep South) as she does on the things which she felt gave her life meaning and texture.  She spends a lot of time in childhood; she grew in Eatonville, Florida, which was the first Negro town to be incorporated in the United States.  And she spends a lot of time describing the things that gave her life joy: music, friends, school.  She does not milk her life for its extraordinariness – rather, she describes the world as she saw it.

This may sound like a disappointing emphasis, since she did have such a remarkable life.  But ‘Dust Tracks on a Road‘ is a real pleasure, and not because you get to read much about her adventures.  Rather, Hurston’s memoir is such a joyful read because you get to spend it in her company, and she is outstanding.

Zora Neale Hurston, Class of 1928, Chicago, Ill., November 9, 1934
Zora Neale Hurston

First of all, Zora Neale Hurston is an amazing writer.  I’m talking an off-the-charts, batshit-nanners beast of prose composition.  She has a distinct writerly voice, a sort of folksy twang which is meant to disarm and which will make you think that she is less sophisticated than you.  You will be wrong.  She is so, so good at writing – I really don’t know how to say it better than that.  If the task of a writer is to communicate an idea, or a scene, or a sight, clearly, beautifully, and originally, then Zora Neale Hurston is one of the best American writers I’ve ever read.  Full stop.

Let me give you an example.  Here is a passage that Hurston wrote about her stepmother, the woman her father married when her mother died and whom she hated:

“Not every skunk in the world rates a first-class killing.  Hanging is too good for some folks.  They just need their behinds kicked.  And that is all that woman rated.”  (p. 96)

There are words in that passage, ‘skunk’, ‘folks’, behinds’, which are meant to sound conversational, demotic and casual.  That is not a passage which would, at first glance, impress you with the learning and precision of its author.  But consider that the same author will, only a few pages later, write this:

“There is something about poverty that smells like death.  Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air of underground caves.  The soul lives in a sickly air.  People can be slave-ships in shoes.”  (p. 107)

And you will see that you’re in the hands of a master, someone who deploys colloquialism not because she is herself unsophisticated, but because she has decided that wisdom is best expressed in simple language.

But her incredible facility with language is only part of what makes Hurston so much fun to read.  She was also possessed of a genuinely original outlook.  I can’t think of another writer with a voice at all like hers; there is no part of this book which could have been mistaken for the work of another person.

This distinction doesn’t just reveal itself in the language that she uses; it also comes through in the things she chooses to say.  She’s funny, and wise, and brave, and even though she wears these qualities lightly, they shine through all the time.  In her very framing of the problems of her life, you see a point of view which is novel and charming and courageous, really winning and really admirable.

I know I sound totally gaga about this, but let me give you a few examples, passages that I think are both beautiful and wise, and which I think only she could have written:

“People seldom see themselves changing.  It is like going out in the morning, or in the springtime to pick flowers.  You pick and you wander till suddenly you find that the light is gone and the flowers are withered in your hand.  Then, you say that you must turn back home.  But you have wandered into a place and the gates are closed.  There is no more sharp sunlight.  Gray meadows are all about you where blooms only the asphodel.  You look back through the immutable gates to where the sun still shines on the flowered fields with nostalgic longing, but God pointed men’s toes in one direction.  One is surprised by the passage of time and the distance travelled, but one may not go back.” (p. 65)

“I found out too that you are bound to be jostled in the “crowded street of life.”  That in itself need not be dangerous unless you have the open razors of personal vanity in your pants pockets.  The passers-by don’t hurt you, but if you go around like that, they make you hurt yourself.” (p. 148)

Or this, which was my favorite passage in the whole book, and which I would like to have printed on little leaflets that I can just give to people when I break up with them:

“No two moments are any more alike than two snowflakes.  Like snowflakes, they get that same look from being so plentiful and falling so close together.  But examine them closely and see the multiple differences between them.  Each moment has its own task and capacity, and doesn’t melt down like snow and form again.  It keeps its character forever.  So the great difficulty lies in trying to transpose last night’s moment to a day which has no knowledge of it.  That look, that tender touch, was issued by the mint of the richest of all kingdoms.  That same expression of today is utter counterfeit, or at best the wildest of inflation.  What could be more zestless than passing out cancelled checks?  It is wrong to be called faithless under circumstances like that.  What to do?

I have a strong suspicion, but I can’t be sure that much that passes for constant love is a golded-up moment walking in its sleep.  Some people know that it is the walk of the dead, but in desperation and desolation, they have staked everything on life after death and the resurrection, so they haunt the graveyard.  They build an altar on the tomb and wait there like faithful Mary for the stone to roll away.  So the moment has authority over all of their lives.  They pray constantly for the miracle of the moment to burst its bonds and spread out over time.” (p. 265)

Zora Neale
This is my favorite picture of her.

Sometimes, in reading as in life, you just fall in love with someone.  An author can compel your heart the way a lover can: they’re just right for you, they draw you to them and everything they do amazes you.

And you sound like a dummy about them for a while, the same way that you do when you’re in love.  You talk about them too much, people around you get bored listening to you.  That’s how I feel about Zora Neale Hurston, having read this book.  I’m blown away by how good she is – I want to tell everyone I meet about her.  I want to read everything she’s ever written.  I want to get her words tattooed on my back.

I won’t do that last thing, but I will go back and reread ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘.  I can’t wait.

.