Similar to how it feels to think about the ocean, it’s difficult and perhaps impossible to fully grasp just how vast the world’s largest deserts actually are. When I toured the Sahara Desert in Morocco a few years ago, I was immediately struck by the dichotomy of feeling awe over this vast expanse of sand — eerily beautiful, somehow surreal — and an almost existential sense of dread at its sheer breadth. We camped in the Erg Chebbi with our Bedouin guides and it remains one of my most extraordinary travel experiences. From the camel ride into the desert itself to playing drums with our guides around a massive bonfire as the winds kicked and the temperatures plummeted to the sandstorm that set in overnight and made it virtually impossible to sleep — it’s something I’ll never forget. Deserts are a singular geographic oddity — brutal and seemingly hostile environment that nonetheless supports a surprising array of life. Writers, explorers, and others struck by a sense of adventure and wanderlust have long been fascinated by these surrealistic expanses. The books and novels below are among the best chronicles of that fascination.
Journeys in Desert Places
In his latest book, William Atkins makes a sojourn across five continents exploring eight of the world’s most extraordinary deserts. Atkins ably chronicles the dichotomous beauty and inhospitable nature of these fascinating landscapes. It is one part travelogue, one part rumination on the oddly spiritual pull deserts seem to have on humanity.
Experiences from the Outside World
This oft-hilarious travelogue chronicles a selection of the sometimes sordid, always enlightening misadventures of Geoff Dyer. Here, Dyer makes his way around the globe from Norway to French Polynesia, including a stop into the deserts of New Mexico. Towing a line somewhere between fiction and non, Geoff Dyer always makes for an entertaining read.
Journeys Through the Chilean North
Chile’s Norte Grand is the world’s driest desert — a largely unknown and nearly inhospitable corner of the world. For years the desert’s stores of copper, silver, and iron were plundered for profit. The 19th century discovery of nitrate, in many ways, led to the formation of the modern state of Chile and fostered the extraordinary inequality that marks the nation. The story of Norte Grand is the story of Chile and it is a fascinating one.
A Season in the Wilderness
Edward Abbey is known for his rabble-rousing, environmentally conscious, irreverent fiction. He’s deeply passionate about the desert, its conservation, and its ecology. With Desert Solitaire, Abbey recounts his time as a park ranger at the Arches National Monument in the late 1950’s. At turns adventurous, philosophical, and of course humorous, Desert Solitaire is classic nature writing and a must read.
“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” That is arguably the most famous line Stephen King has ever written and it opens the first volume of his sprawling Dark Tower series. The Gunslinger centers on Roland Deschain, a sort of knight-errant in a dying world on the brink of collapse, and sees him tracking a dangerous sorcerer across a vast and formidable desert. Melding elements of high fantasy, western, and King’s characteristic horror, The Gunslinger marks the beginning of one of King’s finest literary achievements.
The English Patient is a contemporary classic and arguably Michael Ondaatje’s best work. It garnered the 2018 Golden Man Booker Prize and is as sensuous and spellbinding today as it was upon its initial publication. The English Patient tells the story of four people sheltering in bombed out Italian villa during WWII. The novel focuses on an amnesiac man burned beyond recognition, the eponymous English patient, and his slow recollection of his adventures in the surreal expanse of the North African desert.
The Songlines is one of legendary travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s most famous books. It follows Chatwin’s search for the meaning of Australia’s Aboriginal dreaming tracks – invisible pathways used to “sing” the world into existence. Both surreal, thoughtful, and beautifully written, The Songlines is an extraordinary work of wanderlust and curiosity.
Disgusted by what he perceived as the softness of modern Western life, Wilfred Thesiger set out on an extraordinary journey to explore the deserts of Arabia. Beginning in 1945, he began wandering the Empty Quarter, the largest contiguous sand desert in the world and a vast expanse covering parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE, and Yemen. It is a vivid account of the traditional life of the Bedu (or Bedouin) tribes of the region.
Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of the twentieth century’s most influential piece of science fiction. Set on the desert planet of Arrakis, it is a work of extraordinary imagination. Blending elements of adventure, mysticism, and statecraft with a combination of sci-fi and fantasy tropes, Dune has become a foundational piece of contemporary sci-fi.
A Triumph (The Authorized Doubleday/Doran Edition)
T. E. Lawrence
This classic memoir, which inspired the Oscar-winning film, recounts T.E. Lawrence’s exploits on the Arabian Peninsula during WWI and his role in the Arab Revolt — an event that largely shaped the modern Arab world. Lawrence was a scholar and archaeologist and Seven Pillars of Wisdom has proven an invaluable firsthand account of a landmark moment in twentieth century history.