The Immeasurable World

William Atkins

William Atkins revives the great British tradition of classic 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.

Critic Reviews

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 sant.

Oliver Balch, Financial Times

William Atkins’s first book, The Moor, was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize, and his second, The Immeasurable World, won the Stanford Dolman Travel Writing Award. In 2016 he was awarded the British Library Eccles Prize.  His journalism and reviews have appeared in Harper’s, the Guardian and the New York Times.

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