Edward Abbey's DESERT SOLITAIRE belongs on the shortest of several short lists of 20th century classics, whether we are talking of classic literature of the American West, nature writing, or environmentalism. Why is this such a brilliant book? It isn't the originality of ideas. Other writers-Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, Bernard DeVoto, Mary Austin-had already articulated many of Abbey's central ideas either about nature or about Western policy. Bernard DeVoto was an innovator; Abbey is not. Nor is Abbey's anger and fury at exploiters and defilers unique: DeVoto was just as irate and just as incapable of pulling his punches. Nor is it Abbey's overall vision that makes his book so compelling. Again, both DeVoto and Stegner-and especially DeVoto-evidenced a broader and more systematic understanding of the broader issues confronting the West. None of this is accidental. DeVoto exerted a major influence on Stegner, and Stegner taught Abbey in the Stanford University Creative Writing Program. What makes DESERT SOLITAIRE so marvelous is the almost tactile love and passion Abbey displays for the Desert Southwest. Over and over Abbey summons up specific places, particular mountains, individual landscapes. Although he can write about the desert in general, he more frequently writes about particular spots in Arches National Park and the surrounding environs that help explain his attachment to the West. He is the literary equivalent, in his more somber, reflective moments, of Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams. As a result, what one recalls upon remembering DESERT SOLITAIRE is not words so much as a collection of images. Structurally, the book only resembles a memoir of his time working as a park ranger in the Arches National Park.Read more ›
Edward Abbey didn't like to be known as a nature writer (he was far too proud of his fiction), but after reading this book I would have to say he is among the best. Before I read this book, I had never even considered traveling to the Southwest, this book changed that, and the way I look at nature forever. Abbey has rightfully been called the Thoreau of the American West, this book more than any other shows us why. In Desert Solitaire Abbey is at his best, doing for the Southwest what Thoreau did for Concord and Walden. One of the great strenghts of this book is the way Abbey weaves together such a wide array of subject matter, which illustrates the seemingly endless variety of experience, in what is thought by many to be an inhospitable wasteland. In a collection of breif chapters Abbey touches on everthing from the incredible beauty of forgotton canyons, the Southwest's past inhabitants, a feral horse, the Colorado river, the perils of industrial tourism, and the story of a man who may have came to die at the edge of a cliff. In this book you get a great sampling of everything Abbey has to offer, from his stinging wit and dark humor, rage and sadness concerning the destruction of nature, and finally to hope. Edward Abbey has accomplished on the printed page, what Ansel Adams' photography has done for the Southwest. And yes, both immortalize a time and a place that are being destroyed forever, little by little, day by day, but leaving for us a sad and yet wonderful record of what used to be, and why what is left is worth saving. Desert Solitaire is both a celebration and a lamentation for the disappearing landscapes, and hidden canyons that Abbey chose as his own paradise, and if you read this book it may become yours too. Like Abbey's says get out of your cars and crawl in the sand, and EXPERIENCE what nature has to offer, you might just be surprised at what you find.
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"I would rather kill a man than a snake," wrote Edward Abbey, and I suspect he even meant it. That sentence summed up, for me, this book: it is filled with Abbey's love of the wild desert and its inhabitants and his contempt for modernity and its inhabitants. I think Abbey was one of the early voices in modern environmentalism, and this is a classic book in that field. I appreciate his desert and his writing; even if you are not an environmentalist nor a lover of the desert, you may see why people are if you read this. At any rate, his deep naturalist reflections deserve consideration in our fast-food, internet, climate-controlled, sanitized and artificial age.
Edward Abbey is a contradiction. A poet when describing the wonders of the desert and the joys of solitude; then he becomes a strident critic of his fellow man if they have the audacity to disagree with him. There is a definite will and intelligence driving the prose, but it is partially spoiled by the rants that Abbey goes on. The book has a split personality; celebrating the wilderness, but using a voice that often becomes so disagreeable that you might want to take asphalt to the park yourself. Finally though the poet wins out and you go along for the ride. I try to think of this book as rafting down the river, enjoying the wonders and trying to avoid the jagged rocks. A little white water is fine; just don't hold me underwater for hours at a time.
While in the main I loved this book, Abbey's hypocritical nature had me fuming at times. He makes fun of tourists for scratching their names in sandstone (rightfully), but then goes ahead and carves his name in trees. He makes fun of tourists for littering (rightfully), and a few chapters later describes rolling a tire into the Grand Canyon (nearly missing a mule train!). The book is riddled with other such examples. The thing is: I'm not sure he even recognized these glaring contridictions. But aside from not really liking HIM, I loved the BOOK... the last chapter left me weeping...
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