Solitaire for Groups

In the late 1950s, Edward Abbey spent summers working in Utah’s Arches National Park, performing a variety of park services and sometimesdesert-solitaire escaping for backcountry hiking and rafting adventures or side work for local ranchers. The result is his 1968 book Desert Solitaire. Over 40 years later, his book is still relevant, poignant, and laced with enough controversial moments to keep any book group talking well into the night.

I was born in Utah the year that this book was published, and spent my first thirty years making regular trips to many of the places that this book describes. I was an aspiring poet in those days, and people in Utah’s writing community were still telling stories about their run-ins with Abbey. I’m embarrassed to say that this was the first time I’ve picked up one of his works of nonfiction. He was every bit the character that his books make him out to be.

Much of environmental writing has a tone of hallowed (and sometimes martyred) reverence for the natural world. While Abbey feels a strong philosophical connection to the deserts, canyons, and mountains of Southern Utah, he’s no victim. You don’t have to worship piously at the altar of nature to understand and enjoy his writing. He’s rude, angry, funny, and not afraid of a little self contradiction. He still throws rocks into the canyon to see what happens and races brashly into dangerous edward-abbeyadventures.  Abbey’s writing, both here and in fiction like Fire on the Mountain and The Monkey Wrench Gang, was an inspiration for acts of eco-sabotage, such as when he uses a chainsaw to take down billboards on the paved roads whose encroachment on the wilderness he so detests.  Whether or not you agree with use of any such tactics, you’ll understand what motivates them much more after reading Abbey.

Abbey can move readers in many ways–to fear, when he recounts a dangerous hiking trip near Havasu; to laughter, when he describes humorous encounters with lazy motor tourists; or to a sense of mortality when he joins a search for a man who underestimated the dangers of hiking alone in the summer desert. Any of the sections of this superb book will generate discussion. My personal favorite is “Down the River,” which recounts his boat trip down a section of the Colorado soon to be buried by Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam. It’s a rambling but beautiful trip in a magical place that’s gone forever.

Much of Abbey’s work is still in print, as is a good biography by James M. Cahalan. If your group has any interest in the natural world, take a literary trip with Cactus Ed. It’s a wild ride that you won’t forget soon.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

2 Comments on "Solitaire for Groups"

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  1. Ed Abbey’s Cadillac is for sale (http://tinyurl.com/mxn6r5) to benefit Moab’s October ’09 Literary Festival (http://www.moabconfluence.org). Check this out and share it ?

  2. btrott@wrl.org' Barry says:

    It is also worth checking out Abbey’s letters, recently published as “Postcards from Ed.”

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