The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places
Anyone who sees only emptiness in a desert isn’t looking hard enough, said Oliver Balch in the Financial Times. Though no book could take a third of Earth’s land mass as its subject and uncover every hidden treasure, William Atkins’ “rich and refreshing” new travelogue will open eyes to how much we overlook. Recounting his experiences visiting eight deserts on four continents, the London-based writer has created a work that’s at once a cultural primer, a model of “the very best kind of nature writing,” and “a travel book of the first order.” With The Immeasurable World, “Atkins reminds a world shrunken by Google Earth that true discovery remains not only possible, but exhilarating.”
“The prose can become directionless, as if spun blindfold on a desert plain and then released,” said Gavin Francis in TheGuardian.com. “But it is also very often gorgeous.” To be surrounded by Australia’s red-tinted Great Victoria Desert feels, Atkins says, “as if the cerebral cortex has been injected with a solution of carmine.” The emptiness of Central Asia’s Aralkum Desert, which was created by modern irrigation projects that drained the world’s fourth-largest lake, is “as starkly alarming as a socket deprived of its eye.” And when he hits North America, “the book takes off.” Near the U.S.-Mexico border, he leaves desert survival packs for migrants. At Nevada’s Burning Man festival, he encounters revelers distributing penis-shaped popsicles and volunteering to be nailed to a cross, and he doesn’t blanch. In their abandon, he glimpses the same impulse that drew ancient prophets to the desert.
Atkins savors the desert’s capacity to inspire such contradictory responses, said Robert Collison in the Toronto Star. Some sections of his book “read like a spiritual quest for life’s meaning,” while others celebrate the hedonistic, outlaw life that the desert’s remoteness makes possible. How can an environment that gave birth to all three Abrahamic religions also be a favored hangout of gamblers and bandits? “It’s this tension between the sacred and the profane that gives this book its pulse and panache.” ■