Reflections on Into the Wild

Last Saturday, because Borders is closing and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hide the stash of books I had set aside, I splurged on a bunch of new books, but one of the books I bought was meant to replace a copy of a book I gave to a friend: Into the Wild.

I’m on my fifth way through this book. Obviously I love it. For those of you who don’t know or haven’t read the book, Into the Wild is a true story about a young man who gives all his money to charity and sets off tramping across the country before dying in Alaska. Along the way, though, he meets lots and lots of people who were thoroughly touched by his presence, even if they only got to know him for five hours. There’s obviously way more to this story than that, but there’s much to glean from this book, and if you haven’t read it, I highly, HIGHLY recommend you do.

What I want to look at is the impact this young man had on the people he met.  Christopher McCandless was his name, and he was a man who truly lived the simple life, sort of a 20th century Thoreau, only more of a wanderer. Inspired by men like Thoreau and Tolstoy, when he graduated college, partially as a direct insult to his parents, but also to begin a life where he tramped about most of the western half of the country, first in a car, then on foot, meeting people along the way.  He spent most of his time in solitude and enjoyed it, but he was very social (albeit only to arm’s length with people) when he was around others. One man he met interested me the most.

During a portion of his travels, he met a man who was around eighty years old, and befriended him in the process.  The man sought to save Chris, help him stop being homeless and get a job, but when he found out that Chris was a vagabond by choice, he began to talk to him, and in a way, Chris helped save him.  He was encouraging him (as well as others he met) to break out of their boxes, live outside the comfortable life that they had constructed, and live a little more on the edge.  Do things they didn’t do regularly, and have new adventures.  Chris told this old man to sell most of his possessions, get an RV, and drive around exploring the country.

Last night I was thinking about how much the book inspired me.  It always makes me want to go on an adventure, or a road trip, or just to go do something I’ve never done before. Then I began to wonder: am I truly inspired, or just living vicariously?

Then I began to wonder even more: do I live vicariously through the other books I read, like all of my philosophy books, my theology books, my classic literature, my nonviolence blogs?

I realized that the only book which I truly have lived out was The Naked Pint, a book I own about craft beer. That one’s easy to live out.  This is not a good thing.

I decided to do an inventory of the books I own.  Not counting the seven Bibles I own, I own 524 books.  Of those 524 books, I have read a grand total of 88.  That’s not even 20% of the books I own.

It made me wonder why I buy so many books when I have read very, very few of them.  I realized how much of a fraud I am.  I think I own books to impress others.  I might read some portions of them, something to give a little information on and present myself as intelligent, and while I do know a thing or two about the subjects I talk about, the fact is I still struggle understanding a lot of the concepts I’ve read about, especially in the areas of philosophy and certain aspects of theology.  Ethics isn’t too bad, and obviously I’ve done my homework on nonviolence, but it is astounding to me how little I really know about the world.  Even if I were to read all 524 books I own, the amount of knowledge I would have isn’t even a billionth of a percent, and even if I knew everything about the world, I would still struggle to understand this life.

Chris’ life and push to live outside of our comfort zone led me to this post.  The truth of the matter is I don’t know jack, and I”m not just saying that because Socrates talked about how admitting you know nothing is the first step to knowing everything.  I love to read, and I love books on a level that borders on obsession, but reading will not bring understanding without acting upon what you’ve read.  Christians know this to be true of scripture, Muslims the Quran, Buddhists the Dhammapada and other writings, and so on.  Act upon those nice feelings a book gives you.

It moves me every time I hear the story of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, but am I moved to the point where I love others the same way?

Chris’ story inspires me to have adventure, but do I leave my comfy couch to go climb a mountain?

Shane Claiborne inspires me to look out for the homeless, but do I go downtown and feed the ones I know are there?

What good are these books if I’m not doing anything about what I read in them?

In light of these revelations, I’ve decided that, as of September 1st, I will not be purchasing books for one full year (or until I have read 420 of them), in the hopes of saving money and taking time out to actually read and apply what is in my books.  The money I save I intend to put to something outside of my apartment, though I haven’t decided what yet.  On top of that, I’ll be talking to you about my findings and what I come up with while reading.  This won’t apply to everything on my shelves (I have Stephen King novels and other mass market stuff, so I don’t think I’ll derive much from that), but I think it’ll give interesting insight into life and understanding it.

I’m doing this because I want to learn better to apply what I’m learning.  A book that only serves to entertain is, quite frankly, hardly a book worth.  Books should teach, inspire and push us to do things we once thought were previously outside ourselves, and that is what I hope will happen here.

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