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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.

30 review for The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places

  1. 3 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. 4 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

    Rebecca

    (3.5) Atkins has produced an appealing blend of vivid travel anecdotes, historical background and philosophical musings. He is always conscious that he is treading in the footsteps of earlier adventurers. He has no illusions about being a pioneer here; rather, he eagerly picks up the thematic threads others have spun out of desert experience and runs with them – things like solitude, asceticism, punishment for wrongdoing and environmental degradation. The book is composed of seven long chapters, (3.5) Atkins has produced an appealing blend of vivid travel anecdotes, historical background and philosophical musings. He is always conscious that he is treading in the footsteps of earlier adventurers. He has no illusions about being a pioneer here; rather, he eagerly picks up the thematic threads others have spun out of desert experience and runs with them – things like solitude, asceticism, punishment for wrongdoing and environmental degradation. The book is composed of seven long chapters, each set in a different desert. In my favorite segment, the author rents a cabin in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona for $100 a week. My interest waxed and waned from chapter to chapter, but readers of travelogues should find plenty to enjoy. Few of us would have the physical or emotional fortitude to repeat Atkins’s journeys, but we get the joy of being armchair travelers instead. See my full review at Shiny New Books.

  4. 5 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.

  5. 3 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!).

  6. 3 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.

  7. 4 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.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Susan Csoke

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

  9. 3 out of 5

    Andrew

    I'm not quite sure what this book was meant to be. I’m not sure it knows either. From the opening parts it looks like a history of the conquering of certain deserts, with the author kind of following in those pioneers footsteps. A bit. But as it goes on it seems to spend less time on the history and more on what is happening in these deserts now. I’m quite surprised, because the most interesting parts were the two segments in the USA, closely followed by China and the Aral Sea, none of which exp I'm not quite sure what this book was meant to be. I’m not sure it knows either. From the opening parts it looks like a history of the conquering of certain deserts, with the author kind of following in those pioneers footsteps. A bit. But as it goes on it seems to spend less time on the history and more on what is happening in these deserts now. I’m quite surprised, because the most interesting parts were the two segments in the USA, closely followed by China and the Aral Sea, none of which explore the history of the desert (well they do, but in the chapter about the Burned Man festival these paragraphs in particular just get in the way of telling the story of what is happening now). The books seemed to be building to a climax. The author looks at seven desert regions, the first two come across as a bit dry (pun absolutely intended) but the next four segments just get more and more interesting. Sadly, the seventh and final part, set in Egypt, loses that precious momentum. Thematically it works, the theme of the saints rounds the novel off in an appropriate way, linking in with the first segment, finishing where it started, but that final chapter is just dull, and whilst I was eagerly devouring the previous parts I had to force myself through the last forty pages. Shame, as without that loss of momentum at the end I think it would have been a four star book and not a three. The bits that worked were great, it is certainly worth reading, but the end is unsatisfactory.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    Rather than satisfying me with a book similar to two of my favorites: Desert Solitaire and The Man Who Walked Through Time, which are both about solitary sojourns in desert national parks, British author Atkins challenges by exploring some of the world's great deserts with guides in search of human activity. The deserts he visits, from the Taklamakan in extreme western China to the Black Rock in Nevada, are not quite pristine, and several of them are scenes of conflict and tension. His stay at t Rather than satisfying me with a book similar to two of my favorites: Desert Solitaire and The Man Who Walked Through Time, which are both about solitary sojourns in desert national parks, British author Atkins challenges by exploring some of the world's great deserts with guides in search of human activity. The deserts he visits, from the Taklamakan in extreme western China to the Black Rock in Nevada, are not quite pristine, and several of them are scenes of conflict and tension. His stay at the ancient Coptic monastery of Desert Father St. Antony east of the Nile and the rituals and structured self-policing of the Burning Man festival are some of the most interesting chapters for me. Border Patrols and dehydrated immigrants, Aborigine homelands lost to nuclear testing, and a great inland sea with its valuable fisheries dried up for water diversion projects are among the sad stories. There are good maps which help with the geography and history along with meeting the deserts' current tough citizens.

  11. 3 out of 5

    Steven

    Atkins is an excellent observer and can evoke a sense of place so well. In this book, he travels to several of the worlds deserts, describing the natural features therein, but also delving into a human aspect of the place. He travels to the Empty Quarter on the border of Oman and Saudi Arabia retracing the steps of British explorers, then he's off to Australia's Great Victorian desert to explore it's legacy of nuclear testing. In the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts of China he retraces the steps of Atkins is an excellent observer and can evoke a sense of place so well. In this book, he travels to several of the worlds deserts, describing the natural features therein, but also delving into a human aspect of the place. He travels to the Empty Quarter on the border of Oman and Saudi Arabia retracing the steps of British explorers, then he's off to Australia's Great Victorian desert to explore it's legacy of nuclear testing. In the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts of China he retraces the steps of archaeologists and missionaries. He visits the former Aral Sea, now a desert, and then he's off to the US southwest, describing the plight of border-crossing migrants in the Sonoran Desrt and the excesses of Burning Man attendees at Black Rock. Finally, he circles back to the middle east and visits Coptic monasteries in the Egyptian desert and his introductory exploration of the desert as a place that focuses one's thoughts. It's an excellent travelogue. While he's definitely a presence in the book, he doesn't make it all about him and focuses our attention on the people he meets.

  12. 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.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Yasmin

    Elfin-looking William Atkins treks across various deserts in search of what? That is the pervading question of this book. It wasn't immediately clear to me why he embarked on the journeys he did, other than finding books about deserts in a monastery library. Monasteries and monks are definitely his cup of tea. The journeys are interesting, the deserts and their histories are fascinating. It's been a long time since I saw shamals referenced anywhere. Shamals were an important part of the desert I Elfin-looking William Atkins treks across various deserts in search of what? That is the pervading question of this book. It wasn't immediately clear to me why he embarked on the journeys he did, other than finding books about deserts in a monastery library. Monasteries and monks are definitely his cup of tea. The journeys are interesting, the deserts and their histories are fascinating. It's been a long time since I saw shamals referenced anywhere. Shamals were an important part of the desert I spent five formative years living with or rather beside, perhaps both. I was closer to Oman than any of the other places he traversed. The book is lightweight, but a very good read.

  14. 3 out of 5

    John

    An unusual travelogue based on the writer's travel through some of earth's most inaccessible places -- deserts. An interesting combination of history, geography, literature, and even some philosophy. In total he visits 8 deserts on 5 continents.

  15. 4 out of 5

    David

    When I heard it was similar to Bruce Chatwin, I ordered it right away. Well, it is not. Of the 6 essays, I disliked 2, enjoyed 3 and the last so so. So...3 stars.

  16. 3 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.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Anthony

    I'm never going to Burning Man

  18. 5 out of 5

    Sara Goldsmith

  19. 3 out of 5

    Jim

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tammy

  21. 5 out of 5

    Virginia Ingham

  22. 3 out of 5

    Tim P H P

  23. 4 out of 5

    Julie Weston

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kass

  25. 3 out of 5

    Natalia HA

  26. 3 out of 5

    Todd

  27. 4 out of 5

    Maryellie

  28. 4 out of 5

    ⋟Kimari⋞

  29. 3 out of 5

    Rhonda Lomazow

    A fascinating intriguing trip through the deserts of the world a tour of uninhabitable places unique people ,places.This book was intriguing perfect for me the arm chair traveler.Highly recommend.Thanks tonDoubleday #netgalley for advance readers copy

  30. 3 out of 5

    Gearóid O Donoghue

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