Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (Book Review)

June 11, 2018

In 1996, one of the worst climbing disasters ever recorded took place on Mount Everest. One of the climbers involved in the tragedy, a survivor of the devastating event was Jon Krakauer. Krakauer, even before the disaster that killed 8 took place, was a renowned writer and journalist, known for his interest in adventure and the outdoors. He wrote Into Thin Air as a way of recording the events of the 1996 Everest climbing season from his perspective. The book's accounts of the events are chilling, engrossing, and most of all leave the reader with a haunting last impression that few other written works can carry

out. The most disturbing part of all? Every part of the book actually took place.


Krakauer's career as a journalist shows through in the writing style used throughout Into Thin Air. Short, to the point, and free from any literary flourishes, his style is like that of Ernest Hemingway (himself also a journalist). Of course, Krakauer does examine human emotion far more often than Hemingway did in his writings; a book about such devastation would be unsettling easy to read otherwise.


Into Thin Air opens to an explanation of how Krakauer wound up on the highest mountain on Earth in the first place. An amateur climber, Krakauer wrote for a sports magazine that wanted him to climb Mount Everest to write a piece about it for the publication. This first part of the book adds important context about Krakauer himself in order to better follow the story that comes next.


As the journey to climb Mount Everest begins, we learn more and more about the members of the 1996 climbing team. With so many characters to deal with, Krakauer struggles to develop each one in a fully effective way, leading to confusion at certain points throughout the book. Instead of showing various character traits through plot, Krakauer seems to rush through the vital step of character development by overly relying on the backgrounds of various characters to give reason for their actions. For such an accomplished writer, this is disappointing. While it would be easy to criticise Krakauer's ability as a writer over his character building in this book, it may be unfair considering the context. A number of explanations point to why the characters were constructed mainly through descriptions of their backgrounds. The first of these is that Krakauer knew these people personally and interacted with each of them throughout the 1996 Everest Expedition. With such familiarity, it would be easy to take certain traits for granted and forget to point them out to the reader. Moreover, Krakauer was faced with the unique challenge that is normally presented only to the writers of eulogies. That is to say, many of the characters he was writing about had died in the events depicted in the book, survived by their families and loved ones who would undoubtedly search through his novel for answers. This was, whether consciously or unconsciously, a factor in the development of the characters throughout the book, as it would be for any writer.


While individual characters throughout the book may lack depth, this is more than compensated for through the interesting group dynamic. Nowhere in the book is this more readily apparent than in one scene in particular, in which the prospective Everest climbers are seated together at Base Camp engaged in discussion. As the characters talk, the conversation eventually turns to why each of them wants to climb Everest in the first place, considering the financial (and potentially physical) cost associated with the sport. The responses are varied; each more interesting than the last, and acts as a social commentary on why any person does anything at all even though in the end it may not be the most logical or prudent thing to do


At the climax of the book, when the disaster finally takes place, the events are depicted through the eyes of Jon Krakauer in rapid succession without pause. The pace is fast without time for reflection. The shock, horror, and raw confusion at this point in the book leaves the reader with a sense of disorientation and loss of control; a small sliver of the feelings that must have been felt on the mountain in 1996.


Into Thin Air leaves a chilling and lasting impression upon the reader. Other books are easily put down and forgotten. Not this one. Krakauer has accomplished both a literary and truly human feat with Into Thin Air. Frightening, brazen, and well-written, Into Thin Air takes its place among the best books of the 20th Century.



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