The Immeasurable World
William Atkins revives the great British tradition of travel writing by recording his journeys to the earth’s most desolate places: deserts.
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For all the desert’s dreamlike beauty, to travel here was not just to pitch yourself into oblivion: it was to grind away at yourself until nothing was left. It was to aspire to the condition of sand.
One third of the earth’s land surface is desert, much of it desolate and inhospitable. What is it about this harsh environment that has captivated humankind throughout history? From the prophets of the Bible to Marco Polo, Lawrence of Arabia to Gertrude Bell, travellers have often seen deserts as cursed places to be avoided, or crossed as quickly as possible. But for those whose call deserts home, the ‘hideous blanks’ described by explorers are rich in resources and significance.
Travelling to five continents over three years, visiting deserts both iconic and little-known, William Atkins discovers a realm that is as much internal as physical. His journey takes him to the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter and Australia’s nuclear-test grounds; the dry Aral Sea of Kazakhstan and ‘sand seas’ of China’s volatile north-west; the contested borderlands of Arizona and the riotous Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert; and the ancient monasteries of Egypt’s Eastern Desert. Along the way, Atkins illuminates the people, history, topography, and symbolism of these remarkable but often troubled places.
Reviving the illustrious British tradition of travel writing, The Immeasurable World is destined to become a classic of desert literature.
The Earth's surface may be two-thirds sea, but of its land, one-third is desert: an equally shifting, fluid place, fugitive and untold. Until Will Atkins came along. In sublime prose that veers from startling human and natural history to dreamlike personal experience, The Immeasurable World brings apparently barren places to life in a brilliant, revelatory narrative. The author becomes a kind of sensor in the wilderness, electrically gathering together these stories. The result is is a book in which to get lost and find another world: not an arid, blank waste, but a richer, more extraordinary place than we ever suspected.
Being a bit of a desert rat, I began The Immeasurable World with interest and finished enthralled and grievously enlightened. The strangeness and inhospitable nature of the world’s great deserts—and they are so variously singular—have not prevented humankind from assaulting and perverting their inconsolable beauties. William Atkins is an erudite writer with a wonderful wit and gaze and this is a new and exciting beast of a travel book.
Atkins displays throughout a fine descriptive touch … Delightfully variegated. Within a page, Atkins switches from environmental jeremiad to an account of the famous Burning Man festival in Nevada … Gripping … An entertaining volume.
A rich and refreshing travelogue ... A genius idea ... Testament both to his skills as a writer - sharp, sympathetic, endlessly informative - and the surprising abundance of his chosen topic ... it can, at one level, be read as the best kind of nature writing ... At another level, this eclectic book could pass as a social-science primer ... An account of remarkable scope and depth ... Merits praise as a travel book of the first order. Atkins reminds a world shrunken by Google Earth that true discovery remains not only possible, but exhilarating ... Colourful pen portraits abound. Ever alert and always engaging, he has achieved that very rare feat: to see the world in a grain of sand.
Atkins deftly turns his detouring into unified and potent storytelling ... He bags his own experiences slowly and measuredly, by roaming and lingering... This degree of immersion, not passing through but staying on, complements his nature writer's keen eye for detail ... Intoxicating ... Suspenseful passages keep us gripped ... If the aim of modern travel writing is to teach readers something new of the world, then this book has richly succeeded.
A treat for desert lovers ... Atkins is a gifted and interesting writer, with a deft turn of phrase and an original mind. He uncovers the many guises of the desert with much imagination, insight and wit.
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