By definition, an anthology is a collection of stories, poems, excerpts from literary works, etc., that are published together because they represent a particular time period, literary style, or theme. What to include and what to leave out is always a problem; however, The Sierra Club Desert Reader: A Literary Companion, edited by Gregory McNamee, must have presented unusual difficulties. Desert Reader comprises excerpts from fiction, poetry, travel writing, journals, folk tales, songs, and other literature about the great deserts of our world, including selections by distinguished authors, historical figures, philosophers, historians, explorers, and travelers covering a 2,000-year span. Earth’s dry lands with their wild nature, vast expanses of empty space, and harsh climatic extremes have influenced human art, culture, and religion since the beginning of recorded history. In an introduction to Desert Reader, McNamee explains the problem as well as his criterion: “The deserts of the world have spawned a significant body of literature, a corpus well out of proportion to the number of people who actually dwell in them. . . . In this anthology, I have attempted to gather some of the best of that body of writing, observing the American poet Ezra Pound’s dictum that literature ‘is news that stays news.’ I do not, of course, pretend to completeness; that is the nature of an anthology, a selection of texts that reflects the editor’s tastes and prejudices.”
Although arid lands account for about 20 percent of Earth’s surface, scientists and other experts apparently cannot agree on what ought to be considered true desert. In his introduction, McNamee talks about the variety of landscapes subsumed by the word “desert”: “The very word conjures up mystery, evokes the windswept fastness of Beau Geste and Lawrence of Arabia. That mystery may be a sign of its imprecision, for the term embraces an improbable vast range of landscapes from the comparatively lush columnar cactus forests of Arizona and Sonora to the Antarctic, where 90 percent of the planet’s fresh water lies locked in ice.” For Desert Reader, McNamee has accepted the broadest possible definition and included literary works from regions—even the Antarctic—where rainfall is very scant or irregular, vegetation is sparse, and there are prevailing winds that dry up, or drive away, normal rainfall. However, the Antarctic continent, although it receives the least precipitation of any region on Earth, will seem an unlikely desert to those who do not accept McNamee’s definition. While the Antarctic section contains many poignant passages—for example, a letter written by British explorer Robert Scott just before his death in 1912 during an unsuccessful attempt to reach the South Pole first—that illustrate the savage nature of all of Earth’s arid lands, its inclusion serves only to broaden further the scope of an anthology that is already too ambitious in its conception.
It is impossible, nevertheless, to dislike an anthology that includes Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Charles M. Doughty, T.E. Lawrence, Jorge Luis Borges, Mary Austin, John Muir, Edward Abbey, and Bruce Chatterton, to name just a few. Many of McNamee’s selections are superb. An excerpt from Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain leads the section on North American deserts. In the selection chosen by McNamee, Austin (a contemporary of John Muir) graphically defines the desert country that first captured her imagination when she was a young woman newly arrived in the Southwest: “East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders. . . . This is the nature of that country. There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion painted, aspiring to the snow-line. Between the hills lie high level-looking plains full of intolerable sun glare, or narrow valleys drowned in a blue haze.”
Austin and the Argentinean poet Jorge Luis Borges, who describes the desolate Patagonian countryside in an excerpt from his novel The South, set a tone and mood for Desert Reader that is unfortunately diluted by the sheer volume of less effective passages. Both Borges and Austin obviously understand the principle that less can be more. Borges writes: “The intolerable white sun of high noon had already become the yellow sun which precedes nightfall, and it would not be long before it would turn red. . . . Outside the moving shadow of the railroad car stretched toward the horizon. The elemental earth was not perturbed either by settlements or other signs of humanity. The country was vast but at the same time intimate and, in some measure, secret. The limitless country sometimes contained only a solitary bull. The solitude was perfect, perhaps hostile, and it might have occurred to Dahlmann that he was traveling in the past and not merely south.”
In a selection from Edith Wharton’s memoir, In Morocco, published in 1906, Wharton turns her marvelous gift for telling detail to a lush description of a 19th-century Moroccan castle:
Court within court, garden beyond garden, reception halls, private apartments, slaves’ quarters, sunny prophets’ chambers of the roofs and baths in vaulted crypts, the labyrinth of passages and rooms stretches away over several acres of ground. A long court enclosed in pale-green trellis work, where pigeons plume themselves about a great tank and the dripping tiles glitter with refracted sunlight, leads to the fresh gloom of a cypress garden, or under jasmine tunnels bordered with running water; and these again open on arcaded apartments faced with tiles and stucco-work, where in languid twilight, the hours drift by to the ceaseless music of the fountains.
Desert Reader contains so much effective writing that one hesitates to be overly critical, and McNamee does make a good case for the need to protect our fragile arid lands. However, one does wish he had heeded the philosophy expressed by an old Algerian describing the desert as “the Garden of Allah, from which the Lord of the faithful removed all superfluous human and animal life, so that there might be one place where he can walk in peace.” Despite McNamee’s disclaimer that he has made no attempt at completeness, the broadness of the subject matter and his eclectic standards of selectivity have resulted in an anthology that proves once again that more of a good thing is not necessarily better. Desert Reader may be compared to an ancient tile mosaic that has been unearthed and reassembled. The reassembled tile fragments offer tantalizing hints of the original beauty of the mosaic, but the full impact of its original design is lost forever. The many really fine passages contained in Desert Reader suggest what the anthology might have been had McNamee narrowed its scope and discriminated more in both the selection and the editing.
[The Sierra Club Desert Reader: A Literary Companion, Edited by Gregory McNamee (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books) 306 pp., $16.00]