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All Covered With Cheese: “Into Thin Air” and the Ambient Reading Experience

(Nice update, small-pieces-loosely-joined-wise: I was tipped off today that the radio piece discussed in this post can be found on the Public Radio Exchange, which is where KQED found it.)

For my workshop class, I am supposed to turn in 300 words on Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” this week, and it has been rough going. I liked it when I read it the first time around in 1997, even enough to buy it (a copy that failed to survive several moves), but this time I only finished “Into Thin Air” out of a sense of duty to my coursework (and at that, I blurped over a chunk towards the end where I largely recalled what was going on).

Is “Into Thin Air” a good book? Of course it is. Fabulous craft, a spellbinding adventure story, an intriguing subculture, tremendous details, and a captivating narrator–it’s all there. But for this reader, “Into Thin Air” is presently handicapped by the Ambient Reading Experience.

Most of us biblioholics have several books going at once, in categories that suit our lives. I have the Purse Book, the Treadmill Book, the weighty tome by the bedside, the fun book in the living room, the commute book, the bathroom book, the travel book, even the book in the kitchen (stir, flip page, baste roast, flip page). Add magazines, newspapers, the best online reading, and quality radio, and the sum is my ambient reading experience, a literary conversation in my head. Inevitably, the books invite comparison with one another; inevitably, some books that ably stand on their own as “good reads” fare poorly when assessed in context with their ad hoc peers.

I don’t remember what I was reading when I read “Into Thin Air” the first time, but it had tough competition this time around. Don’t laugh, but it measured up poorly against a pile of books about military cooking I have been browsing, reading, and studying.

For this reader, it was hard to turn away from a description of Continental soldiers sitting in the snow, eating fire cakes–plain flour-and-water cakes that were often their only sustenance–to read about wealthy people paying $65,000 a pop (not including transportation) to climb Everest. It was equally difficult to turn away from learning how thousands of young men in the Spanish-American War died from illness or disease, likely brought on by privations caused by spoiled food, to gin up sympathy for a scene in “Into Thin Air” where white men of privilege trade sharp bon mots around a climbing camp, embarrassing the tongue-tied narrator.

Meanwhile, in the background, I listened twice to a special radio program featuring interviews with four young men captured in the Battle of the Bulge. Not once but twice I began crying, each time when one man recalled that he was too ashamed to tell people of his experience as a prisoner of war.

I appreciated the craft of “Into Thin Air” far more than I did when I gobbled down the book the first time, but compared to the other experiences I was reading about, its story now seemed petty. Yes, I know: they climbed, it snowed, some died. But it was still a story about the sad indulgences of people who were not dying in foxholes or even simply randomly falling victim to life’s scourges, but choosing to do something dangerous and then romanticizing the consequences. I know Krakauer makes room for that point of view in his book, but in comparison to the other words in my head as I re-experienced this story, it became the loudest voice and crowded out all others.

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