The book I most enjoyed this year was Passages from Arabia Deserta, by C.M. Doughty, in the Edward Garnet selection (I have the Penguin Travel Library edition, bought from one of the crazies who sell paperbacks used and worse down on Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street). Late in 1876 Doughty, an Englishman, left Damascus for what he called “the Empty Quarter,” the Arabian desert, present-day Saudi Arabia. A Victorian parson’s son among fierce and uncomprehending Muslims, OK. But culture clash is not the reason to read the Passages (whose complete version comprises two volumes).
The reason is the prose, said to have shaped, like wind shapes rock, Henry Green’s and T.E. Lawrence’s – “Lawrence of Arabia” was an early supporter of Doughty’s book. “Pleasant, as the fiery heat of the desert daylight is done, is our homely evening fire. The sun gone down upon a highland steppe of Arabia, whose common altitude is above three thousand feet, the thin dry air is presently refreshed, the sand is soon cold; wherein yet at three fingers depth is left a sunny warmth of the past day’s heat until the new sunrise.” Doughty’s doughty prose is very much like that sand: It seems mere surface until you reach three fingers below and realize what vital glow there is, what sustaining depths.
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