Monday, December 29, 2014

The great literary experiment falls into a crevasse and dies

2014 is almost over, and I haven't written about my epic Books-I-Hated-in-High-School Literary Revisitation Experiment since April, when I discovered my affinity for literary characters who most other people think are evil. There the experiment ended. I left my hero, Madame Dufarge, in the middle of her revolutionary subterfuge; may she continue to knit secrets in perpetuity.

Was whatever spark I once had for reading permanently dimmed by the literary canon forced upon me in high school, when I was too young to appreciate it? Yeah, probably. Did I enjoy rereading any of it as an adult? Yeah, OK, some.

To cleanse myself after the year of dutiful experimenting, I turned to a genre I usually enjoy--Survival Literature--and reread Alive for the third time. If the High School Literary Canon Committee ever wants to drop Siddhhartha, they could surely pull some excellent replacements from Survival Literature, which offers real-life tales of self discovery to shock and awe any teen. Consider the following:

* Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read. A Uruguayan rugby team charters a plane that crashes in the snow-covered Andes in 1972. The narrative explores the emotional and physical endurance the survivors tap into to stay alive during their 10-week ordeal, including their difficult, respectful, and transformative decision to cannibalize frozen corpses. Although search efforts are launched by friends, families, and Chilean, Argentinian, and Uruguayan government agencies, rescue comes only after two survivors trek 60 miles through the mountains to find help.

* Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. Simpson and his mountaineering acquaintance Simon Yates pair up for an ill-fated climb up the north face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. When Simpson breaks his leg near the beginning of their descent, Yates rigs together a pair of ropes that he uses to lower Simpson down the mountain. At one point during the descent, Simpson unexpectedly slips over the edge of a cliff; dangling from a taut rope, can neither lower himself down nor climb back up. Yates, holding onto the other end of the rope a few hundred feet up the mountain, is unable to help without also sliding off the cliff. After a few hours, Yates cuts the rope. Simpson falls into a crevasse, but miraculously lands on an ice table; knowing he's presumed dead, he spends the next four days dragging himself physically (and mentally) back to the base camp, arriving just before Yates' departure.

* Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston. The author does what parents always tell kids not to do: he goes hiking without letting anyone know where he's going or when he'll be back. While exploring a remote canyon in Utah, a boulder slips, crushing his arm against the canyon wall. The emotional drama isn't told with the same quality prose as Alive or Touching the Void, but the story is nonetheless riveting; near death after being trapped for several days with barely any food or water, Ralston amputates his own arm--and then manages to hike out of the canyon and several miles back to a trail for help.

* Into the Wild by master story-teller Jon Krakauer. This isn't really Survival Literature, since the protagonist doesn't survive, but Into the Wild would make a great replacement for Siddhartha, should the Canon Committee ever feel so moved. Christopher McCandless does what Aron Ralston did, to the nth degree: he not only goes hiking without letting anyone know where he's going or when he'll be back, but he does it for months at a time and on purpose, intentionally cutting himself off from family and friends to live an ascetic life in the wilderness. Whether he was seeking Nirvana or something else, no one will ever know, since he didn't have any maps with him when he died of starvation in Alaska in 1992.

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