Friday, May 11, 2012

What the F#!& Should I Read Friday: Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

What The F#!& Should I Read Friday: Books to Make Your Weekend Weird & Wonderful
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey

Whoa! A new thing! I'm doing a new thing! It's called (hopefully you have already gathered this) What the F#!& Should I Read Friday, and it's a weekly book review & recommendation wherein I will introduce an awesome piece of writing that will bring joy, wonder, delight, weirdness, and other good feelings to your weekend. I will do my best to choose books that are a wee bit outside the mainstream and haven't been reviewed in a million places already, books that are not exactly rare gems but at least groovy hey-look-at-that-awesome-piece-of-driftwood kinds of finds. They're chosen for a certain sparkle or scintillation in the writing, a quality of zest or beauty or yearning, rather than for their stories - books that make me feel something at least a little bit profound, without being ponderous, weighty or overly thinky. Books that you get up from feeling glad you read the damn thing, so that next time you see someone moping around groaning aw, dude, what the f#!& should I read? you'll have an epically good answer. 

Why isn't this a thing? No, really, this is a genius idea.
Via Transition Culture.
Oddly enough, there seem to be no book blogs that pose this question. I find this truly bizarre, since I can't believe I am the only person in the world who goes into a bookstore or library and immediately forgets everything I was told I just absolutely had to read and therefore browses the isles in a state of high dudgeon, mumbling no, seriously, what the f#!& should I read under my breath until the phenomenon I will refer to as "bookstore gut" gets the better of me and I have to go home and content myself with the library on the back of the toilet. (Don't pretend you don't know what "bookstore gut" is.) I'm a big fan of What The F#!& Should I Make For Dinner, which is absolutely and totally where I got the idea, but I figured it had to have been done for books already. Nope. There's a Facebook thing, but it's for news snippets, not books. So, okay. I claim it now! Except only on Fridays. Someone else can have the domain name. I like mine.

So, today, the answer to your burning question: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey is the book you should f#!&ing read. (Why the annoying symbol thing? Because I want high schoolers with stupid profanity filters on their school computers to be able to get here, that's why.)

1. Who the f#!& wrote this book?
 A guy named Edward Abbey.  He got called the "Thoreau of the American West," but that's not the best comparison because he makes Thoreau look bad. Don't get me wrong, I love Walden. But most of Walden is about Thoreau enjoying himself in the woods. Even when he's describing the scenery, it's as if it's all there for his own private pleasure. He is recommending it as a pleasantry, suggesting we all go for a nice walk. Not so Abbey: Abbey knows the desert doesn't give a f#!& about him. And the way he writes about it, if you ask me, is a hundred times more beautiful. He's a lot more Henry Miller than he is Henry D. Thoreau, and the book is better for it.

This place is f#!&ing glorious. From an article about
Desert Solitaire on Environmental Geography
2. What the f#!& is it about?
 It's about Edward Abbey becoming a ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah. Abbey used a lot of his journals from his time in the park for it, but it's not exactly a memoir. It's essentially a series of essays about his experience being almost completely alone in one of the most beautiful, wild, and empty places in the country. He goes on fabulous adventures exploring the local landscape, meets some fascinating people (and a f#!&ing crazy horse), and talks bluntly about the loss of wilderness in the American experience. He's kind of a wonderful character: self-sufficient without making a big screaming deal about it, humble, full of awe, straight-talking, contemptuous, deeply spiritual. He gets along just fine in his harsh and scouring new home, but he's also an educated man who will drop lines of poetry and quotes from German philosophers into his journals as they come to him - unpretentiously, just thinking about it. He and the vast spaces of the park go well together. But it's the landscape that's really the main character, not Edward Abbey. This is a book about the desert. It is a spectacularly beautiful and stunning book about the desert. It's got eloquent and often funny diatribes against industrialized tourism and the displacement of Native Americans and the evils of bureaucracy and growth for growth's sake; it's full of fire and fervor about the importance of true wilderness. Like Henry Miller, he loves humankind and hates society. But even though the book is full of his tough and lovely snarling, really it's the desert that sings out.

Cataract Canyon, south of Moab, Utah.
Via Western River Expeditions
3. Where the f#!& should I read this book?
Early in the morning, with a cup of coffee. Curled up in an armchair on a rainy night. Outside. Hard to read it on a bus, plane, or subway - too cramped. It will fill you with such spaciousness that not being able to stretch your legs will feel like an oppression. It's not a commuter book; it's too full of longing for immensity to digest anywhere claustrophobic, crowded, or overly dirty. I think a real train would be okay, though, if you're taking a longer sort of journey and packed some good snacks.

4. When the f#!& is it set?
Fifties? It was published in 1968, and he starts out by saying he's writing about what happened around ten years ago. It's post-war; there's some wild, weird, beautiful stuff in there about the atom bomb, because Moab, Utah, home of the Arches, is also home of a bunch of uranium mines.

5. Fine. Why the f#!& should I read it?
Because it's beautiful. Have you ever been to the desert? I have. It's an impossible, lonely, wonderful place. As Abbey says, completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation. Having been to the desert, having felt for myself its immensity and its strangeness, I've never come across anything like this book for putting me there. You're out in the nowhere lands with him. And there's a particular joy that permeates the book, that emanates like the smell of water from his stories: a fierce joy, burning and irrelevant and rough as sandstone. A kind of exuberance in existence. It's the kind of book that makes the world larger, that leaves you with a longing to see the sky and put your feet against the earth. It will expand the spaces within you. It will recall to you the spaciousness of being. So if you like the natural world even a little bit, you should f#!&ing read it.


  1. Desert Solitaire is one of the best f#!&ing books ever. Just reading this review makes me want to go back to the desert

    1. Oh, good. Mission accomplished.

    2. Haven't read it, but I used to live in the four corners and I've driven through Utah many times. I love Mt. Zion. It is unbelievably beautiful, as is Arches.

      Here, I'll give you a recommendation. "The Lonely Other: A Woman Watching America" by Diana Hume George. She rocks.

    3. Whoa, that looks awesome. I will definitely pick it up. Thanks for the recommendation!!

  2. Well, it sounds like an interesting read. I'll have to try to remember to get to it.
    My recommendation is my last post, which is a book review. Or, really, an author review.

    1. That was a beautifully compelling review. I'm absolutely going to check her out. Hearing you say that she successfully writes her books around what they're not about is absolutely intriguing, especially given her topics. Writers who can manage that always seem to have a wonderful & wrenching elegance to them.


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