A Well-stocked Head and a Better Stocked Library

Reading writers like Mathias Enard and Tomasi di Lampedusa is not only greatly entertaining but also cajoles me to read only the best books. Both writers wear their massive erudition lightly. Gilbert Highet, the Scottish-American classicist used the terrific phrase (to which I aspire, true to autodidactic form): “a well-stocked head and a better stocked library”.

I started this year with the intent of reading widely, dipping into the ocean of contemporary literature. For every Mathias Enard, I abandoned another dozen frightful books, none of which wasted my time but served to further teach me what to avoid. My literary taste remains omnivorous but I shall default to the late D. G. Myers advice: “Read no book before it is ten years old (in order not to be influenced by the buzz”. I shall of course occasionally, whimsically ignore that advice in the hope of discovering more writers like Mathias Enard and Rachel Cusk. Very, very occasionally the hyperbole is justified.

The best books are inexhaustible and capable of transforming, for a time, how we perceive the world. My reading life is ruled by serendipity, one book leading to another. Enard, for instance, prompts me to reread Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Edward Said and Claudio Magris, also to explore the work of Isabelle Eberhardt, Ernst Bloch, Georg Trakl, Sadegh Hedayat, Faris al-Shidyaq and Leopold Weiss.

For the time being though I’m taking a detour, one I take regularly, back to older books, to the hymns of Homer via Peter McDonald, and to a recent edition of Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: Greek & Roman Influences on Western Literature. This might then be a gateway to Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, translated also by Gilbert Highet.

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.”