In the canyons and oases of the Mojave and in Las Vegas’s neon apocalypse, Ehrenreich finds beauty, and even hope, surging up in the most unlikely places, from the most barren rocks, and the apparent emptiness of the sky.
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.