Editors’ Picks

10 Books to Read—And Not a Drop to Drink

Dry salvages that will make you thirsty—part one of our H₂0 reading series

By Our Editors | August 1, 2017


High-summer swelter calls for hydration. Pitchers of lemonade, water slides, dribbly peaches, and swimming holes are all on the calendar. But what happens if—or when—the water runs out? Here’s our selection of bone-dry books to help you prepare for the worst. Best read with a tall glass of … whatever.


The Drought by J. G. Ballard

What’s more dire than a dusty apocalypse? In this sci-fi novel, humans cause a worldwide drought by dumping industrial waste into the oceans. This book—originally titled The Burning World—takes a hauntingly dystopian turn to show how society will fare when water recedes forever.


Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Here we are again, on the edge of a near-future world without water. In this sci-fi classic, a young Californian woman must use the rejuvenating power of her mysterious Earthseed philosophy to salvage what remains of a culture decimated by drought, war, and disease. The story crackles with tension, igniting a thirst for both salvation and the next chapter.


The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Bowles’s masterpiece is a sparse and unsettling journey into post-WWII North Africa. Three Americans unknowingly plunge deep into the Sahara on a journey that leaves them—and us—breathless and parched. The power of the desert is so strong that the characters, notorious boozers all, even consider teetotaling: “I can’t get my mind off water. It doesn’t matter what I look at, it makes me thirsty. For once I feel as if I could get on the wagon and stay there.”



Voss by Patrick White

Passion and adventurous ruin intermingle in this sweeping historical novel by Nobel Prize–winner Patrick White. In the late 19th century, German explorer Johann Voss sets out on an expedition to cross the Australian outback, leaving his lover to fend for herself in Sydney. Little do they know that mutinous storm clouds fester beyond the horizon.

*For a glimpse of Australia with a lighter tone, try the dry British humor of Jan Morris (Sydney) or Bill Bryson (In a Sunburned Country).


Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Better known for a certain Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was also a daring pilot who chronicled his adventures flying for the Aéropostale in North Africa before WWII. With clear, singing prose, Saint-Exupéry shows us the solace and solitude of flying over the desert, as well as the mechanical failures and crashes that leave our hero scraping for survival in a sea of sand.



Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

For all we learn about Father Jean Marie Latour—the brave clergyman who accepts the position of Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico in 1851— it’s the silence between scenes that clings to you like the red dust of the high desert. Latour must find a way to fill the void by spreading his faith to the often-hostile, often-welcoming community of Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, and American frontiersmen.


Cities of Salt by Abdul Rahman Munif

The first novel in Munif’s quintet is a blistering chronicle of the destruction of a poor oasis community after the discovery of oil. The setting is an unnamed Persian Gulf kingdom in the 1930s, though to some, the depiction hit too close to home —Saudi Arabia stripped Munif of his citizenship. The final two novels have never been translated into English, so if there are any takers …


Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

In the oppressive heat of summer, Sofia, a failed anthropologist, arrives in a Spanish town with her sick mother seeking salvation. Sharp, stifling, and surreal, the novel reads like a heat mirage, complete with a sultry interlude with a Spanish student who tends Sofia’s jellyfish burns.


Desert Memories: Journeys Through the Chilean North by Ariel Dorfman

The Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth. It’s where NASA tests equipment for Mars expeditions and nitrate and copper mines pockmark the otherwise barren landscape. Dorfman, a longtime Chilean exile, grapples with historical governmental injustices as he travels through memory and the unbounded, arid desert.


Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

The pièce de résistance of drought literature. Abbey writes about the seasons he spent as the single park ranger for Arches National Monument, just before the paved overflow parking lots and air-conditioned visitors centers were constructed. For all the beauty of the landscape, there’s a salty, wry sting to each sentence. In the event you were to run out of water for example, Abbey recommends that you “comfort yourself with the reflection that within a few hours, if all goes as planned, your human flesh will be working its way through the gizzard of a buzzard, your essence transfigured into the fierce greedy eyes and unimaginable consciousness of a turkey vulture. Whereupon you, too, will soar on motionless wings high over the ruck and rack of human suffering.”

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