Life and death reading

Happy 1998. Have you read “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer yet?

As far as my highly scientific survey can tell, soon every man, woman, and child in the country will have either read it, heard it aloud, or been lectured to at length about it by some well-meaning bore. If you have evaded this trend so far, I can tell you that it is a truly gripping story of danger and death on the slopes of Mt. Everest. Go read it and tell all your friends about it. Curiously, another best-selling book this season, “The Perfect Storm” by Sebastian Junger, is a tale of man battling the elements for survival, this time in fishing boats during an enormous New England hurricane-force storm.

Why the sudden popularity of these life-and-death books? Perhaps people in this comfortable age feel more removed than ever from the flesh-biting Real World. Perhaps they long for an adventure to ground their lives in meaning. But then again, people have always bought adventure books. So is there anything new here?

One of the more interesting aspects of Krakauer’s book was the mention of Internet websites reporting from the slopes of Mt. Everest. When things got ugly, people all over the world knew about it instantly. We all listened in as Rob Hall talked to his pregnant wife in New Zealand even as he was freezing to death on a mountain in Nepal. There is a voyeuristic fascination with tracking the deadly and the evil minute-by-minute, whether it’s the Ebola virus, the Oklahoma City bombing, or United Flight 800 making an unexpected descent.

Voyeurism isn’t new, but it’s getting cheaper all the time. Professional Hollywood pornographic films have lost much of their market to amateurs with video cameras. Anybody can make a movie these days, and if it’s sexual in nature, people will pay. Soon enough, anybody will find it easy to launch a website. Tabloid television and network news, slick as they are, may find themselves competing with the gritty realism of eyewitness gladitorial websites filed by people on the scene, such as those who saw Rodney King being beaten senseless. Krakauer’s book is a terrific achievement, but in itself it doesn’t represent anything new in popular writing or society at large. What is new is the ease with which horrifying details can be reported by eyewitnesses from the burning building, the murder site, the erupting volcano. We should brace ourselves for an onslaught of badly-written but inescapably compelling eyewitness websites, because the tools of mass media are in the hands of the masses.

And now, for your further reading pleasure, a touch of voyeurism.