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Publisher's Summary

The story of a student who went to extraordinary lengths - including living in a van on a campus parking lot - to complete his education without sacrificing his financial future. In a frank and self-deprecating voice, memoirist Ken Ilgunas writes about the existential terror of graduating from college with $32,000 in student debt. Inspired by Thoreau, Ilgunas set himself a mission: get out of debt as soon as humanly possible. To that end, he undertook an extraordinary 3-year transcontinental journey, driving to Alaska and taking a series of low-paying jobs. Debt-free, Ilgunas then enrolled himself in a master's program at Duke University, using the last of his savings to buy himself a used Econoline, his new "dorm." The van, stationed in a campus parking lot, would be an adventure, a challenge, a test of his limits. It would be, in short, his "Walden on Wheels."Ilgunas went public in a widely read Salon article that spoke to the urgent student debt situation in America today. He offers a funny and pointed perspective on the dilemma faced by those who seek an education but who also want to, as Thoreau wrote, "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."
©2013 Ken Ilgunas (P)2013 Brilliance Audio, Inc.
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Customer Reviews

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By Mr. on 06-27-14

College humor and philosophy but a fun read

Ken is a very good writer. He is the kind of person who can take a very ordinary situation and make it funny and entertaining. Ken's situations through college and the after years were very common.. Probably tens if not hundreds of thousands of students had more interesting lives and stories. Yet he was able to consistently write about these circumstances in such a way that I laughed about them throughout the entire book. His attempts at expounding on life got a bit much but they were overall brief so they were tolerable. Overall I enjoyed his book and would read more of his work.

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16 of 16 people found this review helpful

By karen on 05-03-15

Delightful and infuriating, both.

The first half of the book is great -- I loved it, hung on his every word. He's making great points -- kids are burdening themselves with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, spent on earning college degrees which have no economic value. For most, they will be stuck with these loans and huge interest repayments well into middle age -- and with little real benefit. That's an excellent point, and because Ilgunas' writing style is both addictive and fascinating, it's a great listen. It's like he's talking directly to you, telling you how he got himself into that mess, and how he plans to get out.

Special kudos to narrator Nick Podehl -- the perfect voice for this book. I had to check to see if the author himself was narrating, but no. It's just very well done indeed!

But then you come to the second half....... like all converts to a new lifestyle, Ilgunas decides that what he was forced to do to repay his loans -- extreme off-the-chart thrift and Alaskan wilderness-wandering to save money -- is something that everyone should do. Must do. In fact, in everyone did it, it would cure society's ills.

His notion that everyone should take time to live alone in the Alaskan wilderness -- a much, much colder Walden Pond experience -- is that it would help people refine their life priorities and make them less vulnerable to the world of consumerism. (Ilgunas doesn't delve into the mechanics of how having "everyone" retreat to the Alaskan wilderness alone would actually work out, land-and-space wise, but he's in favor of it, anyway.) Then, without taking a breath, he goes on to pontificate about the need for maintaining -- presumably at taxpayer expense -- world-wide wilderness, so that all this would be possible. And what about the people who are too "infirm" to do such a thing? He implies there would be only a few, but for those, just the idea that the wilderness exists would be enough for them to want to pay for it.

Hypocrisy reigns. In the process of ranting against organized society in general, Ilgunas decries how society "spoiled" the pristine beauty of northern New York, building communities like the one he himself grew up in -- where he still lives, in fact, as a 23-year old moocher off his parents, eating their food, tapping regularly (if reluctantly) into his mothers bank account. All the while, he ridicules the mundane life of those who work at regular jobs to pay for mortgages, who maintain restricting ties to family and friends -- when they could be out exploring the wilderness, finding their "wild" selves. In short, Ilgunas comes off as a quasi-nutcase in his fervor for his new lifestyle.

If there is an upside to that -- I came within a hair of quitting the book, in the midst of all that self-serving arrogant nonsense -- it's that at the end of the book he admits his own hypocrisy. At least he has the capacity for honesty. In that sense, it's a better book than Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America", which has a somewhat similar theme. Both books are fascinating reading, the tales of bleak poverty and extreme making-do, but Ehrenreich is much more strident in advocating her solutions. At least Ilgunas maintains a smidgen of humility.

But here's the bottom line about Ilgunas: in his unbridled passion for extreme penury -- living in a toilet-free van, peeing into a bottle, discarding waste "behind a tree", fretting over a mouse eating his food -- a life in which he literally obsesses over every cent he earns and spends, he's really no different than the people he despises so much, those who are consumed with acquiring. Whether one's obsession is doing without, or with acquiring more, one is still spending one's life consumed with THINGS.

Somehow I don't think that's what he intended.

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39 of 42 people found this review helpful

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

By A. Smith on 08-02-17


I think I've listened to this about 3 times now. Very good narrator and inspiring account of modern day Thoreau living / minimalism without being preachy. Highly recommend

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By Sìle on 06-25-13

An adventure that lacks ... something

Here, Ken Ilgunas recounts his adventures as he seeks to pay off his undergraduate debts in the first part of the book, and, in the second, how he lived in order to secure his post-graduate degree at Duke University. This book appealed because I have my own unsecured debts, and a desire to return to university.

Although this book lived up to its synopsis, it was not exactly what I hoped it might be, but it though Mr Ilgunas's experiences did provide food for thought, though I now realise I could not follow in his footsteps.

Ken Ilgunas worked in in a remote outpost in Alaska to pay off his original college debt, then undertook a canoe journey with a group seeking to replicate the experience of the Canadian voyageurs of the 18th and 19th centuries; before doing his post-graduate degree all without going back into debt.

Although there are some interesting anecdotes about the adventures, and details of his budgets are provided, overall, I was not overly enthused by this book. Some sections I felt I was being preached to,in others, the narration became too wordy in describing feelings about places and/or people. As much as it appeared Ken Ilgunas went into detail, I’m not sure I really know just how he did cope on a day-to-day level under the strict, self-imposed budgetary, and living conditions; I always had the feeling something was missing from these recollections.

The author seems to berate the normal path people take through life, consisting of (in his opinion) getting and education, working in a job they may dislike to paying off the debts they accrue getting that education, getting a mortgage, continuing to work in a job they dislike to pay off the mortgage and other consumer debts, then retiring without having really lived. It’s a point-of-view held by many who seek the simpler life, but others may disagree believing it is more about “dropping out” of humanity, something which Ken’s mother hints at in the book.

The narration by Nick Podehl was quite well done, though I did query the pronunciation of some words, but this might have been accounted for by the difference between American and UK English. The audio edition I downloaded from Audible was crisp, clear and without any faults.

I would recommend this to anyone contemplating university via student loans, but I'm not sure it would be all that helpful to those that do want to take the corporate path.

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