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The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places

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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 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.


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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 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.

57 review for The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places

  1. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    Atkins is the latest one to be drawn to those impenetrable places, deserts. He joins an illustrious list of explorers and people who are seeking something amongst the arid sands. The geographer definition of a desert is somewhere that has less than 250mm of rain per year, but for those that know what to look for, they can be places of riches and places where life is right at the edge, but they are not lifeless if you know where to look. Atkins is not fully sure what he is seeking though, his par Atkins is the latest one to be drawn to those impenetrable places, deserts. He joins an illustrious list of explorers and people who are seeking something amongst the arid sands. The geographer definition of a desert is somewhere that has less than 250mm of rain per year, but for those that know what to look for, they can be places of riches and places where life is right at the edge, but they are not lifeless if you know where to look. Atkins is not fully sure what he is seeking though, his partner of four years had accepted a job overseas and he was not going with her. Seeking some clarity of mind he heads out to the Empty Quarter on the Arabian peninsular a place made famous by the travel writer Wilfred Thesiger. In his book Arabian Sands, he went searching for those that still carried out the age-old Bedouin life and where others saw unforgiving wilderness, Thesiger found timeless peace. Standing in the mountainous pink dunes, he is humbled by the vastness of the place and by the people who know these places so intimately that they are never lost. The Great Victorian Desert in Australia has been Aboriginal lands for millennia. The UK government with collusion from the Aussie PM used it for numerous nuclear tests. These were on ancient Aboriginal land and the fallout caused many health problems and displaced people who had no idea of what was really going on. Even though it echoed to the most powerful blasts that we humans can make it is still a place that has spiritual significance to the people that still choose to live there. The next two deserts are in Asia; the Gobi and what is left of the Aral Sea. These utterly different places have been used as a method of defence to protect China for people trying to enter the country and the other a site of a massive environmental disaster. Stepping once again in the footsteps of travellers before him, in this case in it is the Cable sisters, where he discovers a place that is tense and edgy. Standing in the desert that once was the Aral sea is quite a surreal experience and he learns how the waters that once contained sturgeon now hold no life and how the demands for irrigation drained this once great freshwater sea. Next place to visit is the continent of America where Atkins visits two deserts are on the list. First up is the Sonoran Desert. It is a harsh and baked environment that borders Mexico and is a focus for those wanting to cross and realise their own American Dream. Very little of it is fenced to keep people out as the desert is pretty effective at doing that, and Atkins joins those that are trying to keep people out as well as those who are there to offer some humanity to those that have made the attempt to cross. The polarised views of each camp make this a tense place, very different to his next desert, which is the Black Rock Desert and the festival that is the Burning Man where he has offered to help out. The contrast between this place with its liberal perspective on sex, nudity and drugs and the previous location is stark. These places are both very different to his final location though, St Anthony's Monastery in the Eastern Desert of Egypt a place that revels in its isolation from the pressures of the modern world and brings Atkins full circle to the spiritual and intangible elements of the desert. Even though deserts are some of the lest populated places in the world, this is still a series of stories about the people that inhabit them, however, scarce they might be. I particularly liked the chapter on the Australian Great Victoria Desert, a place that was taken from its rightful inhabitants and is slowly being returned having been contaminated. It makes for painful reading. It is as much about Atkins though, he is using the vastness of the desert to clarify his mind and as a support for the pain that he went through at the end of a relationship. Whilst this is a travel book, there is history, poetry and philosophy in amongst the drifting sands. His prose is lucid with hints of melancholy and this book contains some of the best maps I have seen in a travel book yet. Well worth reading for a modern take on deserts.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Rose

    This is a book about tbe author's wanderings through the deserts of the world. We learn how each desert looks as well as a bit about the people that live in each. I found this book fascinating and if you think this book would be dry, well, I think you would be surprised at how the author describes the deserts and keeps you wanting to read more. I would like to thank Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest and unbiased opinion of it.

  3. 3 out of 5

    Eric

    * Truly fascinating exploration of the world's deserts. It is really quite astonishing how humanity has thrived and survived in such a climate. * I received a free copy of the book in a Goodreads giveaway.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Tory

    I almost gave this book 4 stars instead of 5 because I could not 'categorize' it. It combines history, theology, philosophy,politics, science, travelogue, literature, poetry ..... about 8 deserts around the world. Atkins starts the book in the Empty Quarter, Oman, with the Desert Fathers of early Christian monasticsm, then moves on to the Great Victoria Desert, Australia, The Gobi Desert and the Taklamakan Desert, China, and the Aralkum, Kazakhstan, providing descriptions and insights into the c I almost gave this book 4 stars instead of 5 because I could not 'categorize' it. It combines history, theology, philosophy,politics, science, travelogue, literature, poetry ..... about 8 deserts around the world. Atkins starts the book in the Empty Quarter, Oman, with the Desert Fathers of early Christian monasticsm, then moves on to the Great Victoria Desert, Australia, The Gobi Desert and the Taklamakan Desert, China, and the Aralkum, Kazakhstan, providing descriptions and insights into the culture and history of this deserts. In the United States, Atkins considers the Sonoran Desert and the plight of refugees attempting to cross the border in Nogales as well as the Black Rock Desert and the cultural phenomenon of Burning Man. In the last chapter, Atkins comes full circle back to theology, at a monastery in the Eastern Desert, Egypt. I enjoyed the maps at the beginning of each chapter, so that I had a better understanding of where each desert was located, and the few black & white photos sprinkled throughout the book. I would have enjoyed more pictures of the desert landscapes, though I know I can Google them on my own. This book was not an easy or fast read, but worth the effort. I received this book as a giveaway (thank you Goodreads and Doubleday!).

  5. 5 out of 5

    Bronwen Griffiths

    I love visiting deserts and love reading about them. William Atkins is a fantastic guide. A mix of the personal - including meetings with local people - plus historical and political context makes this an engrossing read. I was particularly moved by his account of Maralinga, site of the British nuclear tests in the 1950's.

  6. 3 out of 5

    Diane

    I won this book in a Goodreads first-reads giveaway. An interesting, eye-opening, thought provoking and immersive book about several of the worlds deserts, how they are different, yet the same.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Susan Csoke

    An intriguing story of one mans travels through five continents and eight deserts. Thankyou Goodreads for this free book!!!!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Geoffrey

    (Note: I received an advanced electronic copy of this book from NetGalley) When reading the book's summary,oneI admittedly may be a bit off-put by the prospect of reading about a man's wanderings through some of the most barren places on the planet. However, following Atkins as he travels from the empty quarter to the American southwest to the Taklamakan in Central Asia is anything but a slog. Far from it, one will encounter lands that are all quite similar, yet also unmistakably distinct with t (Note: I received an advanced electronic copy of this book from NetGalley) When reading the book's summary,oneI admittedly may be a bit off-put by the prospect of reading about a man's wanderings through some of the most barren places on the planet. However, following Atkins as he travels from the empty quarter to the American southwest to the Taklamakan in Central Asia is anything but a slog. Far from it, one will encounter lands that are all quite similar, yet also unmistakably distinct with their physical characteristics, inhabitants, and their histories. "The Immeasurable World" will not only spark an interest in the deserts of the world, but feed it a little more with each passing chapter. By the time it's over, you'll definitely begin to see why the author couldn't help but keep venturing off into these sparse, quiet lands.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Sharron

    The content warrants a 4* rating but sadly the prose does not. If only the same material had been written by Paul Theroux or William Langenweische.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Sara Goldsmith

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jim

  12. 5 out of 5

    Tammy

  13. 3 out of 5

    Virginia Ingham

  14. 4 out of 5

    Kass

  15. 3 out of 5

    Todd

  16. 5 out of 5

    Maryellie

  17. 4 out of 5

    Yi

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jim Kuhlman

  19. 4 out of 5

    Dottie Brown

  20. 4 out of 5

    Bryan

  21. 5 out of 5

    Melissa Cheresnick

  22. 3 out of 5

    Rachel Widdowson

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kingsley Kwok

  24. 3 out of 5

    Curt LeVan

  25. 3 out of 5

    Doubleday Books

  26. 4 out of 5

    Keith

  27. 3 out of 5

    Gennee Rose

  28. 3 out of 5

    LoudVal

  29. 4 out of 5

    Laiba

  30. 4 out of 5

    Diana

  31. 4 out of 5

    Mike

  32. 3 out of 5

    Martina

  33. 3 out of 5

    Mark Baldwin

  34. 5 out of 5

    Tynan

  35. 4 out of 5

    Sam

  36. 5 out of 5

    Gabriella

  37. 3 out of 5

    Cristie Underwood

  38. 5 out of 5

    Annie

  39. 4 out of 5

    Em

  40. 4 out of 5

    Sara Kennedy

  41. 5 out of 5

    Tim Davies

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    Alex

  43. 4 out of 5

    Charlotte

  44. 5 out of 5

    Gordon M

  45. 3 out of 5

    Ivor

  46. 5 out of 5

    Kristyn

  47. 4 out of 5

    Dustin McDowell

  48. 4 out of 5

    Ellie

  49. 4 out of 5

    Grace Fletcher-Hackwood

  50. 3 out of 5

    S. M

  51. 3 out of 5

    Toni

  52. 3 out of 5

    Megan

  53. 3 out of 5

    Doug Beagrie

  54. 3 out of 5

    Jill Jago

  55. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Franklin

  56. 3 out of 5

    ron beazley

  57. 4 out of 5

    Helen

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