Confessional, contemplative, intellectually adventurous, Ben Ehrenreich’s Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time is a worthy addition to the library of American aridity ... He’s an elegant writer with a skill for capturing desert essences ... If you’ve come to Desert Notebooks expecting a straightforward jaunt across the American Southwest, these detours can be disconcerting. It’s as if your desert road trip was morphing into a graduate seminar, with everybody in the car talking about Hegel when all you want is to take the next exit, grab a Coke at the Circle K and make Zabriskie Point by sunset...Yet it works. Ehrenreich’s intellectual explorations are challenging but never pretentious. He’s searching, he’s trying to find hope and certainty in troubled, uncertain times. He makes connections ... Ehrenreich shows that deserts can make us wise in new ways.
Ehrenreich remembers a speech given by the president after his first State of the Union address, in which he lamented the difficulty of unifying the country. 'Without a major event where people pull together,' Trump said, 'that’s hard to do.' That “Desert Notebooks was written before the coming of Covid-19 only makes it feel more, rather than less, timely. Read two months into lockdown, it feels creepily prescient: We are all living in the desert now ... To observe that these notes from arid America, vivid though they are, lack weight is not a criticism, since they are really only the framework for a series of learned, arcane, startlingly original mini-essays — on Mayan cosmology, on colonialism, on black holes, on the racist elisions and misdirections of ethnologists, and on the suppression and distortion of Indigenous knowledge. Ehrenreich’s scholarly reflections serve to locate the origin of America’s present crisis in the atrocities of its founding; but the root causes he identifies are above all epistemological, and far older than America ... It’s probably inevitable that a book that critiques the linear model of time will also be ambivalent about both the act of writing itself and the clicking rosary that is narration. Desert Notebooks sometimes seems to aspire to the atomized condition of sand. Writing itself is invariably a form of plunder, Ehrenreich accepts ... Out of love and despair (where else does art come from?), [Ehrenreich] has built a potent memorial to our own ongoing end-times.
With its evocative blend of nature and travel writing, philosophy and history, journalist Ben Ehrenreich's Desert Notebooks merits favorable comparison with works like Annie Dillard's For the Time Being and broad swaths of recent writing by Rebecca Solnit. All of these elements are skillfully melded in a work that's intellectually challenging, thoughtful and consistently surprising ... [Ehrenreich] draws on a broad range of sources, deeply immersing himself in hauntingly beautiful Native American creation stories and pondering the esoteric work of thinkers like 16th-century philosopher Jacob Boehme. It's a fascinating journey in the company of Ehrenreich and a diverse group of eminent writers that include Jorge Luis Borges and Walter Benjamin, and others lesser known but equally compelling, whose work he handles with a comfortable facility. One comes away from Desert Notebooks not only with a deeper appreciation for some of America's wildest and most rugged spaces, but with a better sense of how we got to where we are and at least a glimmer of what an alternative path into the future might look like.
... exceptional ... Ehrenreich is a bold choreographer, skipping from black holes and Mayan myths to the 'breathtaking racism' of Hegel and mystic wheels in the stories of Borges ... compelling stories ... The world is written, Ehrenreich shows, but we need to find the language to fully decipher its wonders and our place within them.
Ben Ehrenreich’s new book, Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time, is no doubt lively and expansive ... To describe it results in a hodgepodge of terms, since it has a magpie’s sensibility, collecting everything from the suppressed origins of the goddess Athena to the death of Walter Benjamin ... Ehrenreich is at his most compelling when he links historiographical arguments like these with the specific histories of his own desert setting ... If all of this sounds ambitiously far-flung, it is. Ehrenreich’s conversational tone belies the real demands he makes of the reader. As it proceeds, his text hops around through space and time, employing a weaver’s technique that asks us to track many things simultaneously, each in turn receiving its brief moment in the spotlight before the book abruptly puts it back down ... It’s a familiar essayistic method, lyrical, clever, and often satisfying. Ehrenreich deploys it well, and many readers will be perfectly well-equipped to manage it ... It’s as though Ehrenreich thinks the rest of us—his readers—aren’t already involved in our own relationships with the horrors of our time, aren’t already grappling with our own dread ... Since Ehrenreich himself raises the meta-question of what writing is good for, it seems fair to ask what this writing is good for. What effect does it have in the world? The answer for this reader, at least, is that it prompted a mini-cycle of apocalyptic dread (since Ehrenreich is nothing if not a forceful stylist) followed by inurement ... During pandemic times especially—when we’re all doing our best to maintain our humanity and sanity—Desert Notebooks may not be the friend we need.
... a thoughtful, often stirring, meditation on nature, myth, philosophy, politics, and time from the vantage of two starkly different desert environments: the 'surging beauty' of Joshua Tree National Park and the assaulting seediness of Las Vegas ... Along with a lyrical, freshly observed record of exploration, the author puts forth a manifesto against the prevalent, and destructive, notion of time—'the one that rules most of our lives and how we live them,' that insists on history as a linear progression exalting white Europeans, and that depends on 'the illusion of eternal, self-sustaining growth' to justify the exploitation of peoples and environments. He draws on astronomy, archaeology, anthropology, and ethnography as well as Greek, Roman, Mayan, and various Indigenous people’s mythologies ... Ehrenreich cites abundant literary and philosophical sources, including Borges, Beckett, Hegel, Rousseau, and Walter Benjamin, to create a rich tapestry of ideas that cohere into 'an audit, a foreclosure, a notice to appear,' and a declaration of 'the all-but-lost art of speaking truth to power' ... Well-informed and -rendered, passionate reflections on humanity's prospects.