My literary tastes are inclined toward fiction to a fault, particularly the novel. I have always been a bit bemused by those insufferable realists who can’t understand why someone would spend hours reading a story that isn’t true. Resisting the urge to deliver a monologue about the differences between truth and historicity, I usually just change the subject to weather, or the stock market, or something of like factual ilk.
However, several recent travel adventures have convinced me that I might be the one missing out on a higher level of human experience and that non-fiction doesn’t need to be uninteresting simply by virtue of being factual.
Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods is the author’s story of hiking the Appalachian Trail over the course of a summer. Hilarious (at times overly crass) yet insightful, Bryson’s anecdotes are interspersed with historical commentary as well as commentary on rural America, ecology, and the bureaucratic failures of the National Park Service. This book makes me want to load up my pack, find the closest trail, and walk until I’m cleansed with forest grime and mountain streams.
John Krakauer’s personal account of the 1996 Everest disaster, Into Thin Air, delves deep into human psyche. Krakauer’s complex and deeply human narrative recounts the heroism and cowardice, accomplishment and regret, sacrifice and greed demonstrated by people in a battle for their lives. While part of me admired the incredible determination required to reach the top of the world, I was also troubled by the apparent emptiness that drove many of the hikers to their death. However, until I’m scaling the world’s tallest summits myself (a high improbability considering how accomplished I felt upon conquering Old Rag), I doubt I’ll ever understand the mad desire that keeps hikers climbing against all instincts of self-preservation.
These books reminded me of one of my first experiences with the travel adventure genre, Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America, so I finally bought my own copy and put it on my “to re-read” list. In the same way that Bryson’s hiking account makes me want to wander the endless maze of trails across the U.S., Steinbeck’s story urges me to veer onto random on-ramps and drive the miles upon miles of U.S. road. I believe it’s called wanderlust.