The best books on deserts

Nick Hunt Author Of Outlandish: Walking Europe’s Unlikely Landscapes
By Nick Hunt

The Books I Picked & Why

Desert Solitaire

By Edward Abbey

Desert Solitaire

Why this book?

Anarchist and eco-activist Edward Abbey spent a season working as a park ranger in Arches National Monument, Utah, in the 1950s. His account of solitary life in the desert has become a classic of nature writing, a passionate, and often angry, defence of the wilderness he sees vanishing from the American West as civilisation encroaches on every side. One memorable chapter describes a boat journey down the pristine river of Glen Canyon months before it is destroyed by the Glen Canyon Dam, now one of the largest reservoirs in the United States.


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The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places

By William Atkins

The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places

Why this book?

Long fascinated by the accounts of travellers drawn to the world’s arid zones, as if by a strange magnetism, William Atkins immerses himself in deserts from Oman to Australia, Kazakhstan to the United States. The book is both a study of extreme environments and a deeply personal journey that often touches on the political: the Australian chapter becomes an excoriating attack on the British government’s use of the desert as a nuclear testing ground, which devastated Aboriginal communities. There are also some extremely funny parts, as when Atkins ends up in the debauchery of Nevada’s Burning Man festival, surely the most reluctant and awkward festival-goer who has ever graced its playa.


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The Oblivion Seekers

By Isabelle Eberhardt

The Oblivion Seekers

Why this book?

With vivid, dream-like lucidity, these vignettes, stories and fragments describe the life and adventures of a truly extraordinary traveller: the daughter of Russian nihilists who moved to North Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, dressed and lived as a man, drank and smoked kif to excess, had numerous affairs, converted to Islam, was initiated into a Sufi sect, survived an assassination attempt and died in a freak flash flood at the age of only twenty-seven. The writing that survives is as fierce and as gloriously intense as the desert itself.


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Wind, Sand and Stars

By Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Wind, Sand and Stars

Why this book?

As an aviation pioneer, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry flew some of the first mail routes across Africa and South America, piloting planes without instruments and navigating by the landmarks of mountains, rivers and coastlines. Wind, Sand and Stars is an autobiographical account of his life as a pilot, but is also a paean to the stark beauty and deadly dangers of the Sahara: the book culminates with his crash landing in the Libyan desert, near-death from dehydration and exposure, and miraculous rescue by a passing Bedouin. The experience went on to inspire The Little Prince, a book about a character who, like Saint-Exupéry himself, seems to carry the beauty and loneliness of desert landscapes within him.


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Seven Pillars of Wisdom

By T. E. Lawrence

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Why this book?

T.E. Lawrence, better known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, was an archaeologist, explorer, soldier and spy who played a key role in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a war memoir but also an account of an obsession, as Lawrence, deeply immersed in Arab and Bedouin culture, becomes consumed by the desert which scorches his English identity away. His love for the Arabs is tinged by guilt, as he knows that – despite British and French promises of independence – his friends will inevitably be betrayed once the dust has settled.


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