THERE ARE WANDERERS IN EVERY GENERATION, people for whom life is the road, the rivers and mountains. Of Generation X, it is Christopher McCandless, immortalized in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, and Cheryl Strayed of Wild who have captured the imaginations of a generation who demand that life revolve around more than pensions and mortgages and one-week vacations.
“I’d loved books in my regular-PCT life, but on the trail, they’d taken on even greater meaning… They were the world I could lose myself in when the one I was actually in became too lonely or harsh or difficult to bear.” — Cheryl Strayed, Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found
Here are McCandless and Strayed’s reading lists from the road.
On her 1,100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail during the summer of 1995, Strayed carried practical books like her “bible” Staying Found: The Complete Map and Compass Book. But most of her books were for pleasure, sent in boxes she’d pre-packed to be sent to the post offices along the PCT.
1. The Dream of a Common Language, Adrienne Rich
This book of poetry by award-winning author and feminist activist Adrienne Rich was Strayed’s “religion” on the trail. Strayed wrote in Wild, “certain lines had become like incantations to me, words I’d chanted to myself through my sorrow and confusion… and when I held it in my hands on my first night on the trail, I didn’t regret carrying it one iota.” It was one of only two books she didn’t burn in order to lighten her backpack, nicknamed ‘Monster’.
2. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
Written in six weeks between the hours of midnight and 4am while Faulkner worked at a Mississippi power plant, this stream-of-consciousness novel about the Burden family as they journey across the state to bury their wife and mother is consistently ranked as one of the best novels of the 20th century.
The first book Strayed burned on the trail, she wrote “I’d watched Faulkner’s name disappear into the flames feeling a bit like it was a sacrilege.”
3. A Summer Bird-Cage, Margaret Drabble
Drabble’s debut novel, published in 1963, centers on the tension between two sisters whose lives take separate paths — Oxford grad Sarah feels left behind and embittered as the glamorous Louise climbs the echelons of British high society.
4. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
38-year-old professor Humbert Humbert obsesses over the 12-year-old Lolita in one of the most controversial books of the 20th century.
5. Dubliners, James Joyce
This collection of 15 short stories centers on Irish middle-class life in and around Dublin in the early 20th century. Written in the naturalist style, many of the characters in the collection later appear in Ulysses.
6. The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor
A collection of 31 short stories that won O’Connor the 1972 US National Book Award for Fiction, Strayed read The Complete Stories twice from cover to cover on the trail. Rather than burn its pages to lighten her load, she traded it for The Novel with another thru-hiker.
7. The Novel, James A Michener
Michener was a favorite writer of Strayed’s mom, Bobbi. But as a college student and earnest supporter of ‘serious’ literature, a young Strayed told her mom of The Novel, “You know that isn’t a real book.” Reading it again on the PCT aged 26, Strayed regretted those words. The Novel is a fine book.
8. Waiting for the Barbarians, JM Coetzee
A rumination on loneliness and the effects of living in complicity with oppressive regimes that ignore justice and decency, Waiting for the Barbarians helped South African-born Coetzee win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.
9. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
Published in the late 19th century, The Awakening explores a young woman’s search for her identity and sexuality way before Lena Dunham went there.
10. The Ten Thousand Things, Maria Dermoût
Set on the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Strayed wrote of this semi-autobiographical novel, “Each of Dermoût’s sentences came at me like a soft knowing dagger, depicting a far-off land that felt to me like the blood of all the places I used to love.”
11. The Best American Essays 1991, edited by Robert Atwan and Joyce Carol Oates
A yearly anthology of magazine articles published in the US, included in the 1991 collection is Margaret Atwood’s thesis on the female body, Woody Allen’s declaration of a crush on the biblical Lot’s wife, and Jane Tompkins theory of why “museums are a form of cannibalism made safe for polite society.”
When McCandless headed into the Alaskan bush “…he had a fake-fur parka, a rifle slung over one shoulder, a ten-pound bag of long-grained rice, two sandwiches and a bag of corn chips…the heaviest item…was his library. — Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild
1. Family Happiness, Leo Tolstoy
This 1859 novella is written from the perspective of 17 year-old Masha, and focuses on her troubled marriage to her much older husband Sergey Mikhaylych. McCandless highlighted the following passage, which was found by his remains in Alaska in 1992:
“I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and gander and the chance to sacrifice myself for my life. I felt in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.”
2. Walden, Henry David Thoreau
First published in 1854, Walden is a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. In the copy found with McCandless in 1992, he had written TRUTH in the margins by the line,
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” — Thoreau, Walden
3. Dr Zhivago, Boris Pasternak
The last book Christopher McCandless would ever read, Dr Zhivago is one of the world’s great love stories. Taking place in Russia during the midst of revolution, it follows physician and poet Yuri Zhivago as he wrestles with the new order and is torn by his love for two women. In McCandless’ copy, he had copied the line “need for a purpose” from the book.
4. Terminal Man, Michael Crichton
McCandless was no literary snob, and he had Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man, a novel about the dangers of mind control by the author of Jurassic Park, with him on his Alaska trip.
5. The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy
Described as the masterpiece of Tolstoy’s late fiction, this 1886 novella tells the story of the death of a high-court judge in 19th-century Russia. It is, above all, a reflection on the consequences of living a life without meaning.
6. Tanaina Plantlore/Dena’ina K’et’una: An Ethnobotany of the Dena’ina Indians of Southcentral Alaska, Priscilla Russell Kari
Much is made of Tanaina Plantlore in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, and McCandless’ horror on flipping the book’s pages and realizing he’d been accidentally eating poisonous wild potato (Hedysarum alpinum) seeds, known to contain significant levels of L-canavanine — an antimetabolite toxic to humans in significant amounts. He is believed to have starved as a result of this mistake.
7. O Jerusalem!, Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins
McCandless double majored in history and anthropology at Emory University before embarking on two years of travel across North America, a journey — in his own words — that involved “No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom.”
An ambitious 635-page book that took five years of research and several thousand interviews to put together, O Jerusalem! seeks to capture the events and struggles surrounding the creation of the state of Israel.
8. Education of a Wandering Man, Louis L’Amour
A recollection of a life lived to the fullest, L’Amour’s memoir charts his life upon leaving school at 15 to become, in turn, a hobo on the Southern Pacific Railroad, a cattle skinner in Texas, a merchant sailor in Singapore and the West Indies, a bare-knuckle prizefighter across small-town America, and a master weaver of pioneer stories.
9. Taras Bulba, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol
This historical short story follows the life of the Zaporozhian Cossack, Taras Bulba, and his two sons as they set out on a journey to Southern Ukraine to join other Cossacks and go to war against Poland.
10. The Call of the Wild, Jack London
This classic Jack London story is told from the perspective of a Yukon sled dog — Buck — during the late 19th-century Klondike Gold Rush. Though McCandless isn’t thought to have had Call of the Wild, with him on his Alaska trip, he had etched ‘Jack London is KING’ on a piece of wood by the fabled Magic Bus.