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
- 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