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."
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Not a guide to living frugally (as I had hoped), this is the memoir of a college student that awakens to his plight of being heavily indebted for student loans but with little tolerance for office jobs. Ken is engaging and interesting but definitely a bit unusual. The length he goes to to get solitary jobs in the great outdoors and in Alaska to pay off his debt show a penchant for isolation and rigid self-control. He talks of living a simpler life but most of us are not willing to live in such isolation, eating only subsistence foods (peanut butter spaghetti stew, anyone?), living without necessities like a winter coat or heat in winter. Ken gets awfully preachy and overly philosophical in between anecdotes, to the point where it sounds like he is trying elevate his choices to a greater philosophical meaning that I am not sure even Ken believes. It loses its edge of truth.
Interesting, sometimes tedious, offbeat memoir, but I don't think his lessons will last in my mind other than his valid warning about not accruing mindless debt.
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.