Top 10 (+2) Books About Deserts

[UPDATE (January 2014): Added numbers 11 and 12 to this list – the posts at Seraillon are so good I thought it important to link to them from this list. Incidentally, the Comments to this post also revealed some first-rate further reading.]

Wilfred Thesiger, (1910 – 2003)

Wilfred Thesiger, (1910 – 2003)

About 37,000 years ago the last of the Neanderthals were becoming extinct in Europe. The world’s largest sand desert, the Rub’ al Khali, was failing to live up to its modern sobriquet, the empty quarter (known to the Bedouin as ‘the sands’). Hippos, grazing deer and water buffalo drank from lakes and ponds. Even today the Rub’ al Khali is home to more than thirty different plant species and twenty different birds. The word desert is borrowed from Old French desert, from Late Latin desertum, literally, thing abandoned.

San Gorgonio Pass - Richard Misrach: Desert Cantos

San Gorgonio Pass – Richard Misrach: Desert Cantos

Travellers and writers have long been attracted to deserts, places of wonder that offer that combination of disturbance and delight that make up enchantment, a suspension of chronological time, a ‘moment of pure presence.’ The list below comprises a personal top 10 of books about deserts (with 2 further additions). Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section.

  1. Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger – This is the Urtext. Apart from the Badu that live there, Thesiger was the first traveller that crossed the Rub’ al Khali twice, and the only one to write so extensively of the time before oil was discovered. The way of life he depicted has long disappeared.
  2. Desert Divers by Sven Lindqvist – For a slight book, Lindqvist combines autobiography, history and diverse biographies. Named after the well diggers that descend 50-60 metres to build and clean wells in unstable desert sand.
  3. Daisy Bates in the Desert by Julia Blackburn – Daisy Bates’s memorial in Ooldea in the deserts of Southern Australia, reads ‘Daisy Bates devoted her life here and elsewhere to the welfare of the Australian Aboriginals.’ Julia Blackburn’s book tells the story of the woman that, at the age of 54, wandered into the outback and lived there for nearly 30 years. (thanks to flowerville)
  4. The Lives of the Desert Fathers: The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto – Biographies of twenty-six ascetics as they travel through the Egyptian desert. Whatever belief system you subscribe to, these are extraordinary tales of monks and hermits living enchanted lives.  (There were also desert mothers – Marilyn Dunn’s The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages devotes a chapter to Women in Early Monasticism, thank you DZ).
  5. Desert Cantos by Richard Misrach – spectacular photographs of the American desert. Misrach’s landscapes offer an apocalyptic, post-human interpretation of these primordial places.
  6. Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes by ‘Alqama, Shánfara, Labíd, ‘Antara, Al-A’sha, and Dhu al-Rúmma (translated by Michael A. Sells) – Winners of poetry competitions held during annuals fair at ‘Ukaz, near Mecca, these six odes offer a matchless encounter with an ancient, sophisticated culture.
  7. The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt (translated by Nina de Voogd) – Partial diaries of an utterly  remarkable woman who converted to Islam and devoted her life to travelling the Sahara.
  8. The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe – also a breathtaking film, Abe’s book is a bit of a stretch in this list. Are the dunes in a desert? I don’t know but I could not resist listing Abe’s crisply written and compelling tale of an entomologist who becomes trapped in the sand dunes.
  9. Desert by JMG Le Clézio – An atmospheric, beautifully written novel about the lives of the Blue Men, notorious warriors who live in the desert. Sense of place and wonder win over a light plot, but what remains is the sense of the desert’s beauty.
  10. The Crab with the Golden Claws by Hergé – Unapologetically included is this magnificently illustrated tale of Tintin and Captain Haddock’s crossing of the Sahara.
  11. The Desert – John C. Van Dyke – I haven’t read this yet but urge you to read Seraillon’s linked post: “…his book stands as a brilliant, engulfing piece of prose, as fervent an appreciation of landscape as one is likely to find.”
  12. The Desert – Pierre Loti – Another addition from Seraillon to my list for future reading (if I can track a copy down), of a writer that is cited as an influence by Sven Lindqvist. “If one seeks to grasp the palpable danger and grit of desert travel and the fundamental courage of the peoples who manage to live there, it’s doubtful one could do better.”

30 thoughts on “Top 10 (+2) Books About Deserts

  1. Try to check if you can find Ibrahim Al Koni’s books on the desert (not sure of the spelling in English but I will add the link to his wikipedia page in English) , he is one of the best, if not the best, , he once wrote that writing the desert is a profession (or career, or expertise) in expressing the eternal ( إنها مهنة التعبير عن الأبدية ) .
    I know he is translated to French and to German and he won several renowned international literary prizes.

    P.S I strongly disliked Tintin when I was a child (although I read them all) and then growing up I understood why and was able to articulate it.

    • Thank you, Rima, I can see that Ibrahim al-Koni is translated into English, though very little in print. I’ll find one on Abebooks.

      I’d love to hear more about your thoughts of Tintin. I did love Tintin as a child, but have grown more ambivalent as I’ve learnt more about Hergé.

    • Translations of several of al-Koni’s books have been published by the American University in Cairo Press. Gary

    • I’ve been reading excerpts of Desert Solitaire this morning, powerful polemic, but also lucidity in his description of the desert, “a-tonal, cruel, clear, inhuman, neither romantic nor classical, motionless and emotionless, at one and the same time – another paradox – both agonised and deeply still.”

      Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I’ll definitely read it.

      • You might enjoy Peter Quigley’s Coyote in the Maze: Tracking Edward Abbey in a World of Words, an anthology of lit-crit essays by a slew of academic types. From the introduction: The critics in this volume also identify a disruptive energy in the writing, more akin to Nietzsche and Foucault than [Matthew] Arnold. That’s a good enough indication of the book’s overall pomo-tude, but jargon notwithstanding, this is the only such collection I’m aware of, and many of the essays are, in fact, perceptive and thought-provoking. [Available From the Usual Sources, or AFUS]

        For Abbey fans in general, Abbey’s Web is a useful site.

  2. Thanks much for the excellent suggestions, Anthony. I’m in a desert(er) frame of mind myself, so I appreciate having your top-ten list to egg me on/out.

    In addition to seconding Rima’s recommendation of Ibrahim al-Koni’s books, and birds fly’s recommendation of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, I can also unqualifiedly recommend Edward Whittemore’s four unusual novels that comprise The Jerusalem Quartet. Although not strictly about desert life, they incorporate desert settings, history, and culture. Plus, they’re strangely wonderful!

    Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky is a remarkable novel. Well, certainly anything by Paul Bowles is worth reading; he’s an incomparably superb writer. There’s also a good essay in the New York Review of Books by Edmund White: Paul Bowles: The Desert and Solitude. Unfortunately, most of it is behind a paywall, but there’s a nice preview, at least. If you’re interested and have access to a copy of Edmund White’s book, Arts and Letters, you can read his later piece that combines portions of three earlier essays on Paul Bowles. (If clicking on that link brings up the Google Books “you-can’t-read-this-page” graphic, try copying the link and pasting it into your browser’s address bar; should work fine.)

    Finally, there’s a lovely book by Prof. David Jasper: The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture. Among other thought-provoking and illuminating chapters, it includes two detailed essays on the literature of the desert, both of which offer many valuable references to other worthwhile works. I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t enjoy this book, which is available from the usual sources.

    By the way, that photo up there of Thesiger is amazing, and not a little frightening. Heh!

    • Thanks, DZ, for those suggestions. You bring such wonderfully diverse books to my attention.

      I certainly plan to read Ibrahim al-Koni and Edward Abbey’s book, also like very much your suggestion of David Jasper’s book. I’m intrigued but less certain that Edward Whittlemore is my cup of tea, but I will delve deeper.

      I like Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky very much, and also enjoy Jane Bowles’s work, which I often think is finer than her husband’s. I love that picture of Paul Bowles on the NYRB page.

      The Thesiger photograph is a little different from those usually displayed, amazing and, yes, a little scary.

      • You’re welcome, Anthony. Thanks again for your list, and thanks to all the commenters for their wonderful recommendations, too!

        As for Whittemore, I didn’t think I’d be interested in his The Jerusalem Quartet, either, but the writing is so good, and the characters so irresistibly appealing, that I now wish I dwelt in those pages myself. Take a look at Sinai Tapestry, the first book in the quartet [AFUS]. If you’re not captivated within 25-50 pages, I imagine you won’t enjoy the rest.

        Jane Bowles’s writing is excellent, but for me, it lacks the ominous, subversive undercurrent that runs through Paul’s works (most of which should probably be classified as psychological horror).

        OK, here are a few more titles that may be of peripheral interest. I’m sorry I don’t have time to include hyperlinks to descriptive pages, but all of these are AFUS:

        Moneera Al-Ghadeer: Desert Voices: Bedouin Women’s Poetry in Saudi Arabia

        Robert Murray Davis: The Ornamental Hermit: People and Places of the New West [I’m almost positive you’ll like this one!]

        Michael A. Mares: A Desert Calling: Life in a Forbidding Landscape

        Michael A. Mares (ed.): Encyclopedia of Deserts

  3. Thanks for this – what a wonderful list. I’m astonished that I’ve read half of them (if one can “read” the Misrach book and if one can count another version of writings by the Desert Fathers). I’m happy to set a goal of reading the other half.

    A few others I’d add:

    Méharées, by Théodore Monod (not sure if this is available in English)

    The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T. E. Lawrence (some simply unforgettable descriptions of the desert landscape)

    If one can consider the Brazilian sertão a “desert,” then I’ll add Euclides da Cunha’s Backlands and João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão Veredas (in English, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands), which I’ve recently finished. Both have astounding descriptions of the desert.

    Finally, I’m not ashamed to add Carlos Casteneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan despite its elements of kitsch and much of it pure fiction masquerading as anthropology.His descriptions of Mexico’s Sonora desert are deeply atmospheric and evocative.

    • Oops – two more:

      Peter Hopkirk’s Foreign Devils on the Silk Road – a terrific book about the adventures of Europeans wandering the desert in search of the lost cities of the Taklamakan

      Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana

      • I can’t believe that I’ve never read The Road to Oxiana, an omission that I must redress. Thank you.

        Foreign Devils on the Silk Road looks interesting, as do other of Hopkirk’s books. I must dip into one next time I go to the bookshop.


    • Thank you, Scott, for those suggestions.

      Théodore Monod’s Méharées is not in translation. Monod is a fascinating character. I ended up watching a good part of this film:

      It has been many years since I read Lawrence, as a teenager, indubitably what triggered this obsession of mine with deserts. “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

      Many years also since, again as a teenager, I lapped up Casteneda, another adventurer that provoked my wandering into deserts and jungles.

      I’ve made of note of Euclides da Cunha and João Guimarães Rosa, and will save them for a journey I hope to make to Brazil one day.

      • Anthony – wow, thanks for the link to that Monod film. I started it, but I’m late for work, so will have to finish tonight. But it looks terrific.

        I look forward to your “Top 10 Books About Jungles”!

  4. What an interesting set of books.

    Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars has some wonderful chapters about his experiences as a pilot in and over the Sahara.

    Although not quite at the level of the books on your list, Michael Benanav’s Men of Salt is a fine short account of a trip with a Sahara salt caravan.

    • Thanks, Tom for the suggestions.

      Reading the first page of Men of Salt drew me in sufficiently to tempt me to buy the book.

      I adore Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s books, having read all that appear to be in translation. I’ve been waiting for years for his letters to his mother to be translated, but in vain for the moment.

  5. On a recent road trip around the American Southwest, I took Scenes in America Deserta by Reyner Banham. Very interesting for its reflections on the many ways people have made homes in the desert.

    • Also something of a rarity, Banham’s book, with good copies going for hefty sums. I shall balance my intrigue and look out for it in second hand bookshops, but I will pick up a copy of this selected essays which look fascinating.Thanks again.

  6. Quarantine by Jim Crace is a good read. Also, Dune by Frank Herbert (an imaginary desert, by the way, but a good one).

    • Sadly, Michael Roes’ book is not in translation (yet). Thank for positing the link to your review, the book looks very worthwhile. I’ll look out for it.

  7. Charles Bowden, who came highly recommended to me. Check Wikipedia for a list of his works and take your pick for great writing on a variety of subjects but especially the desert.

  8. Another classic you have missed which is required reading for any desert list is definitely “The Sheltering Desert” by Henno Martin. This is my top pick and the definitive classic for desert hunting/survival, just like Arabian Sands is my top pick and definitive classic for Bedouin/Arabian desert travel.

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