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Walden on Wheels: terrific book

I just finished a really terrific new book: Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom by Ken Ilgunas (a young man I suspect we’ll be hearing more of over the years).

I had heard somewhere that it was the memoir of a kid who got freaked out by his student debt and went debt-free by living in a van.

Sounded interesting enough. But it turns out that’s only about 1/10th what this book is about. It’s about a young, coddled, clueless suburban slacker who decides to grow himself up. It’s about the insanity of starting adult life so burdened with debt that you feel too constrained to make interesting choices. It’s about self discovery and hopeful possibilities in the “Screwed Generation.” It’s a bit of social commentary ala Thoreau with a large bit of self-deprecating humor thrown in.

Ilgunas writes well and colorfully and never hesitates to lay out his own youthful delusions of grandeur, juvenile habits, screwups, and lack of motivation. But as the best Amazon reviewer points out, this bored young slacker works harder and accomplishes more than a lot of workaholics.

The book is about how Ilgunas worked his way through his student debt (“only” $32,000, but a sum he saw as crushing, especially because he stumbled his way through school with no goals and came out with no career skills), then made it through a prestigious grad school on cash alone. That’s where the van finally comes in.

But before that, he tells a story of working in Alaska, hitchhiking across two countries, and trying to do good in a government program in the Deep South — all the while going from child to man.

Ilgunas self-identifies as a liberal and an environmentalist. But I perceive a young man on the freedomista road. Many of his observations hardly toe the PC line. And though he sometimes mocks the redneck views of his backwoods neighbors, he also admires many of them fiercely and learns eagerly from them. And when given a chance to try out some serious firepower, he doesn’t hesitate for a second (though his mention of the price of the gun made me wonder whether he was really shooting full-auto or just an UBR with a Hellfire trigger or some such.)

He does go “full Walden” in some of the latter parts of the book, giving social commentary that seems a mite pretentious for one so young. On the other hand, if any 20-something has earned the right to comment so sweepingly on life, society, and the hopes and troubles of his generation, Ilgunas is the guy.

Loved this book — and was both entertained and encouraged — from page one to the very end.

Walden on Wheels: On The Open Road from Debt to Freedom
By Ken Ilgunas
320 pages
New Harvest paperback, May 14, 2013
Just $9.57 paperback and $3.99 for Kindle.


  1. winston
    winston July 22, 2013 12:53 pm

    Thanks for the heads up, I’m gonna hafta give this one a read for sure

  2. Woody
    Woody July 23, 2013 3:44 am

    Bought it last night. It’s a great read so far. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. furrydoc
    furrydoc July 23, 2013 8:07 am

    Do you think I is suitable reading for teens headed to college?

  4. Claire
    Claire July 23, 2013 10:03 am

    furrydoc — In some ways, it might be the best possible reading for a teen. Give them a broader outlook. Maybe save them from making the mistake of just blindly stumbling into debt and a bad career.

    OTOH, parents who are strict with their kids’ reading should know that the book contains a few sexual references and a few four-letter words — nothing graphic and nothing likely to bother or surprise a teenager. But you may be old enough to remember days when a few of those words weren’t so casually written.

  5. Andrew S.
    Andrew S. July 24, 2013 8:48 pm

    This was sitting in the New Non-Fiction shelf at the local library yesterday, so I snagged it. I’m 3/4 done with it already…sucked me right in. For the “family values” set, there’s nothing that a moderately repressed 13-year-old hasn’t already heard a thousand times (or if said 13-year-old hasn’t heard it a thousand times, maybe you should loosen up) before in (the first 3/4 of) this book.

    Looking back on my high school daze, I went to college because I was supposed to, not because I wanted to; and although I had a good time, I would’ve been much better off if my high school had thrown some machine tool classes at me instead of pushing “honors classes,” and I’d spent two years at the community college getting an associates in machine tool technology instead of my English/Journalism degree. Forgive the run-on sentences, please.

  6. Claire
    Claire July 25, 2013 7:09 am

    Andrew S. — Glad the book took you the same way it took me. And yeah … similar regrets about those wasted Skool Daze. (If they’d have only allowed girls to take woodshop, how different life might have been.)

  7. Ragnar
    Ragnar July 26, 2013 2:06 pm

    Ha ha… I’ve been away from the blog for a bit but I just finished it last week and loved it too… Hopefully I remembered to buy it through your Amazon link, as I always try to go from there, and you’ll see i in your sold commish. Amazon is funny, I both love and hate the fact that they know me so well… hate the lack of privacy but love the book recommendations based on my history and ratings.

  8. Claire
    Claire July 26, 2013 2:28 pm

    Nice to see you back again, Ragnar. And I can report that Walden on Wheels has been pretty popular around these parts. Eight or ten people have bought copies via my links, which is a good number.

    Oh yeah … I have that same love/hate thing going with Amazon. Mostly love — as long as they don’t sell that info about me. (And so far so good on that.)

  9. Ragnar
    Ragnar July 26, 2013 3:07 pm

    It was my favorite book by a liberal since “Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream.”

    Now I’m reading something from a list I’d swore I’d never do again… The first book I read from the dreaded list was “The Road.” This one is “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” and shamefully, I’m enjoying it so far… BTW, the dreaded list is… Oprah’s Book Club… I swear I did not know that either was on that dreaded list until they arrived at my house.

  10. Andrew S.
    Andrew S. July 26, 2013 10:37 pm

    Not all of us liberal-leaning people are evil…I believe gun control is being able to hit your target and properly secure your weapon when not in use. I also think the government should stop getting involved in land wars in Asia and instead do something so I don’t have to freak out about my family’s health insurance costing more than the mortgage! Instead we like to argue about hot button social issues that should be individual private matters while our congresscritters and the Permanent Political Class robs us blind!

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