Readers’ Advisory: The Grand Canyon

Readers’ Advisory: The Grand Canyon

I’m a librarian in real life. While that does not necessarily mean that I like to shush people and read a lot of books, it does mean that I might like to recommend some books to you.

My favorites change by the day, with a few unchanging authors in the top slots. I tend to really like books that relate to some aspect of the human experience. I also like to read about places I’m interested in, am going to, or have been. Travel memoirs fill these criteria nicely. Authors that write about their lived experience in a region or a place are even better. I’m making a readers’ advisory (librarian speak for “a list of books I picked”) about the Grand Canyon, which I visited at the end of 2016, and I posted about here, here, and here.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

My friends who know me best know that the best gift you can get for me is pickles and that the one author I will always recommend is Edward Abbey. I read his book Desert Solitaire, about his time as a park ranger in Arches National Park, in my early 20s. I daresay reading that book changed the trajectory of my life. He’s a grump, a curmudgeon, and a real turd sometimes, but when he writes about the places he loves most, he’s a master story teller and funny. While Desert Solitaire is mostly about Moab and Arches, there is a particular chapter called Havasu. It is one of my favorites. He tells the story of a visit to Havasu, an arm of the Grand Canyon. On one of his long walks, he decides to try a shortcut so that he can make it back to his campsite before the sun goes down. Lowering himself over a series of cliffs and pools in a side canyon, he realizes he has gotten himself to a point of no return. The next drop is 80 feet to the canyon floor, and surely certain death, but he can’t make his way back up, either. He writes about his fear: “I began to cry. It was so easy. All alone, I didn’t have to be brave.” Eventually, of course, he makes his way back, but it could have easily ended tragically, leaving the world without the canon of one of its best and most thoughtful writers.

The Man Who Walked Through Time  by Colin Fletcher

Colin Fletcher loved to walk. He loved to walk so much that he published The Complete Walker (1968), The New Complete Walker (1974), The Complete Walker III (1984), and The Complete Walker IV (2002), and he has been credited with sparking the modern-day backpacking industry. In 1963, peering out over the canyon’s depths, he decided to walk the length of the canyon, not from rim to rim but rather from end to end. Much like the Muir book I’ll mention next, this narrative is highly descriptive, documenting his trials and tribulations, both physical and mental, as he traverses the the canyon over a span of 8 weeks.

The Grand Canon of the Colorado by John Muir

It’s impossible to talk about some places of natural beauty without invoking the words of John Muir. Although this is available as a Kindle book for a very affordable price, this short work was originally a chapter in his book, Steep Trails. No one else is as eloquent as John Muir when describing a place: “From one point hundreds of miles of the fairy embroidery may be traced. It is all so fine and orderly that it would seem that not only had the clouds and streams been kept harmoniously busy in the making of it, but that every raindrop sent like a bullet to a mark had been the subject of a separate thought, so sure is the outcome of beauty through the stormy centuries.” This is a quick read that will help you become acquainted with the landscape and magnitude of the canyon.

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West by Wallace Stegner

I’ll be honest with you: I have not yet finished this myself, but I love Wallace Stegner’s writing style. All the Little Live Things nearly brought me to tears, Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety were the two that originally got me hooked. Stegner, docent of the American West, details the story of John Wesley Powell, who was, among many other things, an avid explorer of the Colorado River. It’s the biography “not of a personality, but of a career.” John Wesley Powell spent some time on the Colorado working on maps for the USGS. The river captivated his imagination so that he made return trips in later years, resulting in an accurate map, photographs, and diaries which he later turned into a book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, which I suppose I’d like to recommend too, even though I haven’t read it yet.

The Grand Canyon Reader by multiple authors

I actually picked this book up at the a gift shop on the South Rim, post-hike in 2013. It’s an expertly curated and organized collection of essays and excerpts about the Grand Canyon. The essays are categorized into three sections: The Rim, The River, and The People. You’ll find excerpts from Edward Abbey, John Muir, John Wesley Powell, Wallace Stegner, Colin Fletcher, and many more here. Other contributors include John McPhee, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, and Theodore Roosevelt. This book would serve to inspire anyone who wonders what makes the canyon so magnificent.

I know that there are so many more books that I’ve missed or haven’t read yet. If you have a favorite book about the Grand Canyon, tell me in the comments below.

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