December Reading List: Five Books on Time

Time is a tricky concept–what can seem like an eternity in one context is more like the blink of any eye in another. The longest human lifespan doesn’t even register when contemplating the geologic timescales of our mountains, canyons, and prairies. Whether thinking of fastest or the slowest, the past or the future, an epoch or an hour–time is an always-relative, ever-present idea that defines our lives.

Below are a few books whose stories are anchored to the concept of time, from paddling a wild river in as little time as possible to photographing a rugged landscape one fraction of a second at a time. One book profiles a man who seems to have been born a century too late, while another is an ancient text that just may hold the secret to fitting substance into our brief time on earth. And finally, you’ll find one that traces the booms and busts that have come to define time here in the West.

All five are excellent reads, and I can guarantee that they will be worth your time.

The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon

by Kevin Fedarko

Floating the 277-mile length of the Grand Canyon is an accomplishment in any context, but attempting to be the fastest to ever paddle from its start to finish is amazingly ambitious and possibly insane. The Emerald Mile tells the unforgettable story of a team of veteran river guides who attempted this crazy feat during one of the most treacherous periods in the Canyon’s modern history. The book also offers a fascinating history of the American Southwest, exploring topics from early Spanish settlement to modern-day water management. The book is a masterpiece that should be required reading for anyone with an interest in Arizona’s fabled “big ditch.”

The Grand Canyon: Between River and Rim

by Pete McBride

And speaking of the Grand Canyon, photographer and filmmaker Pete McBride has created one of the most stunning visual records of the Canyon’s timeless landscape that I’ve ever encountered. The book is a result of he and Kevin Fedarko’s 750-mile hike inside the Canyon– a trailless, harsh environment that can be as deadly as it is gorgeous. McBride captures the beauty of the canyon from its inside over the course of four seasons, offering a uniquely new perspective on this often-photographed wonder of the world. But it’s not just pretty pictures– the book is also a powerful adventure narrative that details the Canyon’s past, as well as present-day threats that could negatively affect its future.

The Last American Man

by Elizabeth Gilbert

Before her “Eat Pray Love” mega fame, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote one of my favorite books: The Last American Man. It profiles Eustace Conway, a charismatic “mountain man” who seems to have been born 100 years too late. In his early 20s, Eustace left civilization mostly behind and built a close-to-nature life in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains, where he’s lived ever since. But like all charismatic, strong-willed non-conformists, Eustace’s glowing charm and intense commitment cast a shadow– the man has clear personal flaws that are a product of the very traits that make him so unique. This blurb from Outside magazine sums up the book nicely: “The finest examination of American masculinity and wilderness since Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.”

On the Shortness of Life

by Seneca

Even if I live to be 101 years old, my time on this earth will be short. So the big question is: How do I make the most of this brief moment known as my life? Surprisingly, some of the best advice ever written on this topic is nearly 2,000 years old– this essay written by the Stoic Roman philosopher known as Seneca. The essay examines a host of topics, from using our time wisely to not worrying about trivial matters. Seneca discusses the importance of focus and living with purpose, and the importance of saying no to time-wasting activities. Almost all of the challenges Seneca examines are applicable in today’s fast-paced, super-connected world. For example, his statement, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it,” seems even more applicable for today’s smartphone world than the world of two millennia ago.

Pushed Out: Contested Development and Rural Gentrification in the US West

by Ryanne Pilgeram

The West is a region defined by boom and bust—times of plenty followed by times of extreme scarcity. In this academic yet highly enjoyable book, Pilgeram focuses on the boom-bust-boom of Dover, Idaho—a once-vibrant timber town that fell on hard times. Fast-forward to present day Dover, and, on the surface, the town appears to be thriving thanks to an influx of second homeowners and a growing tourist economy. But the inflow of newcomers and their money has unintended negative effects—long-time residents who can’t keep up with the escalating cost of living and are being pushed out. Dover’s story is an increasingly common one throughout the modern West. Rural gentrification is a major challenge that has only intensified during the pandemic, which makes this book all the more timely and relevant.

For more book recommendations from Ed, head over to his blog, Mountain & Prairie.

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