Tuesday, June 5, 2012

read: wild

When I first heard about the book Wild, I knew I wanted to read it at some point. The book is about a woman’s journey hiking the PacificCrest Trail — not an entirely impossible feat, but deeply difficult in many ways, physical being only the most obvious, and I think it was this idea of taking on a seemingly insurmountable challenge that drew me. .

Then I had the opportunity to hear the author speak on a panel of memoir-ists, and her intelligence and insight pushed the book up my list. I read it for the story, and also to study her writing from the view of what she’d offered during the panel presentation.The author also shared about her decision to write the book. She seemed to have a deeper, layered purpose, one she didn’t herself fully understand what she set out on her adventure. Tragedy forces us to understand life anew, in the same way that journeys of this type question the physicality and importance of the people and things we hold so dear. In a ways, it’s a common narrative, and yet the author’s adventure didn’t seem contrived but very organic

The book entertained me, but that was about it. A few passages stuck out to me as key to her transformation, but the way she recreated her journey into this book didn’t give me enough of her internal life to help me really understand what this experience meant to her. Honestly, it read to me like the journal of a young person, a bit too self-involved, often focusing on the concrete phases of the physical journey, reconnections with friends, and most disappointingly, a condom she packed and wondered if she’d use on her journey. I expected some perspective, since this is a 15-year-old journey, but I guess she decided to write it purely from the point of view of who she was at the time. I also wanted more reflection. I think the author meant to lead the reader to connect some of the pieces into metaphors (like her heavy pack that she over-packed in the beginning and that she came to think of as part of her body), but for me, there wasn’t enough there to fill out the picture. I re-imagined the book as a series of essays and vignettes instead of a chronological story with occasional flashbacks. To me, this would have worked better. But perhaps some of the journey aspect would have been lost.

There’s almost constant critique of memoirs and their writers in the literary world today — for their self-absorption and their sheer abundance. Reading this one, especially with such high expectations, got me thinking more about this debate. I think many memoirs, like blogs, appeal to mass audiences because they’re easy to read and because they’re so intimate, so publishers see that there’s a market for them. Many readers find comfort in fast, formulaic stories that they can easily process and relate to. I also think we as a society may be addicted to peering in at other people’s lives. You’d think we wouldn’t gain much satisfaction from this habit, since usually we compare ourselves and come up short. I’d guess that some of us find roadmaps in the stories these books tell (and that isn’t entirely bad). The danger is in believing we can recreate the story and make it fit into our lives, when in reality any maps we use can only be vague guides or bearers of small, rare jewels of wisdom that transcend the unique circumstances that our particular paths lead us on.

I looked briefly at my log of books read over the past few years. I’ve read few memoirs, and I only gave one more than two or three stars. I remember that there are a few that I didn’t even finish. So I’m curious — what memoirs have you read and enjoyed? What did you gain from them? What did you like about them?

Later this week I’ll share a few memoirs that I enjoyed. Stay tuned!

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