Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 35, Spring/Summer 1994
The Deserts in Literature

Desert Reading: A List by Stephen Cox

Director, The University of Arizona Press


Here are five books that probably ought to be in every desert lover's library. I would not presume to say whether they are the five best desert books, and modesty precludes my listing any books published by The University of Arizona Press, where I work.

Frank Herbert. Dune. Philadelphia: Chilton Book Co., 1965.
This science fiction novel is supposed to be about a desert planet, but, in its details and ideas, the Planet Dune bears a powerful resemblance to Planet Earth. Every time I learn something new about deserts on Earth, I realize that the late Frank Herbert had already described it in Dune. His reading must have been prodigious. Dune has giant sandworms; we have sand snakes. Ancient humans were making and using catchment basins in the Middle East long ago. Why then not stilsuits to capture the body's moisture in a dry climate? Why then not ornithopters? Like the people Herbert describes, Earthlings need - indeed, they seem addicted to - a substance that comes from the deserts and makes their transportation system run. The prose is clunky, the sequels are terrible, the movie was awful, and Spielberg borrowed shamelessly from the book in Star Wars. All that aside, Dune is very well conceived and crafted; from a tiny room on an imperial planet, Herbert moves the reader through veil after veil to reveal more and more of life on the desert planet.
Barry H. Lopez. Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven. Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1976.
Before Lopez achieved fame with the book Of Wolves and Men, he wrote several very small books of eloquent prose. Desert Notes is one of them - a little gem that is hard to classify. It's prose, all right, but it's poetic prose. It seems to be a book of essays but then it unexpectedly slips over the line and becomes fiction. It's a good introduction to Lopez and to his keen view of the desert.
Richard Misrach. Desert Cantos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.
Almost every book of photography is published because one knockout picture caught an editor's eye. Desert Cantos is full of haunting, postmodern color views of the American desert by a very hard-working art photographer. The one knockout picture is a desert landscape filled with palm trees in flame.
Gary Paul Nabhan. The Desert Smells Like Rain. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982.
A scientist and poet and ethnobotanist and a sort of activist on behalf of native people and the plant gene pool, Nabhan has the knack of taking all his experience and turning it into appealing prose that teaches you about the world and how to see it. He has a line to deliver and yet, to our good fortune, he avoids being a preacher. This is Nabhan's first book; better start here.
Ralph A. Bagnold. Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World. London: The Travel Book Club, 1934.
Aeolian geomorphologists consider the late Brigadier Bagnold a major prophet. The rest of us are free to see him as a grand adventurer in the tradition of the British Empire. Bagnold says his father reported fueling steamers on the Nile with mummies. Exploring the Libyan desert using specially outfitted Model T Fords, Bagnold figured out how to surmount a sand dune: you simply drive straight at its base as fast as you can - then it's up and over! At the onset of World War II, he got ahold of some Chevrolet trucks and invented and commanded the Long Range Desert Group that operated behind Italian and German lines and must surely have been the model for the American television series Rat Patrol. Bagnold was a perfect Englishman, and he would have made a wonderful Southern Californian.

bar denoting end of article text

About the Arid Lands Newsletter

Link to ALN home page Link to index page for back web issues Link to index page for pre-web issue archive Link to this issue's table of contents