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Burning Man takes over Black Rock City again this week as the annual festival marks its 33rd edition, with tens of thousands of attendees expected to flock to the Nevada desert for a weeklong pilgrimage of music, art and self-expression.
First held on a nondescript public beach in San Francisco in 1986, where attendees literally burned an 8-foot tall effigy as a form of protest, Burning Man has quickly risen from an underground assembly of artists and misfits to a multi-million dollar mass meet-up thoroughly entrenched in the mainstream. These days, the gathering attracts people from all walks of life, from students to seniors, buskers to bankers, for seven days of community and camaraderie.
“There’s a tantalizing, palpable energy out there that is almost impossible to describe,” says Anne Phan, a San Francisco-based tech executive who’s attended Burning Man twice. “The magical balance of art, music, and community under extreme conditions simply floods your senses and ends up opening your mind, if not your heart.”
For casual observers, Burning Man can be confusing. Unlike Coachella, for example, there are no headliners or official program, but rather camp sites strung together around a loose theme (this year’s theme is “Metamorphoses”) with each site offering “gifts” to visitors that range from food to live performances to hand-made art.
Critics, meantime, peg Burning Man as nothing more than an excuse for gluttony and a guilt-free way to satiate suppressed urges that normally wouldn’t be couth, say, at the office, or a regular concert in the city. But attendees say that’s exactly what makes the festival so attractive.
“That sense of freedom from judgment is what enables the amazing freedom of self-expression,” says Phan. “Burning Man tends to get labeled as a place to escape, but I think we actually go to reconnect.”
We’ve rounded up six books about Burning Man that track the rise of the festival and its impact — and implications — for both attendees and the small desert towns that welcome them in year after year. Whether you’re a virgin or veteran burner, these books track the rise of the festival to its current state and shed light on whether it’s poised for success — or heading towards an inevitable flame out.
1. The Scene That Became Cities
As someone who’s been attending and covering Burning Man for more than a decade, author Benjamin Wachs (who goes by the pen name, Caveat Magister) explores how the festival has changed from a small gathering of families on a San Francisco Beach, to a massive movement that brings together tens of thousands of people every year.
In his new book, The Scene That Became Cities: What Burning Man Philosophy Can Teach Us about Building Better Communities, Wachs questions why Burning Man even matters. The answer, he argues is simple: Burning Man is a prototype, and its philosophy is a how-to manual to create better, more principled communities.
Is it all just an elaborate hoax, or a grassroots movement to re-organize our society? Wachs’ conclusion is debatable but worth reading up on. To Wachs’ credit, the book includes interviews with Burning Man’s founders and staff, many of whom the author knows personally. Purchase: $16.95 on Amazon.com.
2. Radical Ritual: How Burning Man Changed the World
Released just a few weeks ago, Radical Ritual presents Burning Man as a beacon for change, discussing how the festival and its players have impacted everything from the global art market to renewable energy companies to infiltrating even the top ranks of Google.
Author Neil Shister, who says he’s a six-time participant in Burning Man, argues that while the gathering outwardly promotes self-discovery and personal freedoms, it’s also more entrenched in corporate culture than we might think, with underlying values of group-think decision making and large-scale collaborative endeavors.
One of the newest releases about Burning Man, the book also addresses the sudden death of Burning Man founder, Larry Harvey, in April 2018. Shister calls him, “the philosophical epicenter of the movement.” Purchase: $24.50 on Amazon.com.
3. This Is Burning Man
This Is Burning Man is a great introduction to the festival, telling the story of how the gathering came to be and how it grew to the massive phenomenon it is today. The book mixes facts and statistics about the festival, with anecdotes from its whimsical cast of players, from organizers to artists.
Author Brian Doherty has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and he uses his decades of reporting experience to offer up a detailed view of why the festival has been so successful, both in terms of concept and conviction. Along the way, he also takes a hard look at whether the rapturous highs of Burning Man are worth its many risks. Purchase: $3.99 on Amazon.com.
4. Art of Burning Man
A beautiful coffee table book published by art book leaders, Taschen, Art of Burning Man is a 16-year retrospective on the incredible site-specific outdoor installations of Burning Man. Author and photographer NK Guy tracked the festival from 1998 to 2014, capturing lush, large-scale photographs of the surreal displays, campsites and the people behind them. Each photo is accompanied by text describing the scene from Guy’s point of view, both as a documentarian and as an artist himself.
Among the photographs: a mechanized fire-breathing octopus, a towering, 26-foot-high steel coyote, and the eponymous “Burning Man” himself―a skeletal wooden sculpture set ablaze at the end of every iteration. Purchase: $31.14 on Amazon.com.
5. Playa Dust: Collected Stories from Burning Man
For a more nuanced view of Burning Man, you’ll want to pick up this collection of essays, which touches on everything from the organizational structure of the festival, to its social, emotional and environmental impacts.
Contributors include those who built the first wooden effigies on San Francisco’s Baker Beach to artists, architects, musicians and even lawyers who have brokered Burning Man’s existence. The book also includes essays from sociologists who have studied the impact of Burning Man on individuals and communities over time, while answering questions about the true intent of a gathering like this, and whether the counterculture vibe of the early days can truly still exist in today’s capitalist society. Purchase: $23.85 on Amazon.com.
6. Burning Man: Art on Fire
One of the most comprehensive collections of Burning Man photography and art, this hardcover tome includes more than 200 photos from long-time Burning Man photographers Sidney Erthal and Scott London.
The best examples of “playa art” are featured here, from sculptures to paintings and large-scale immersive installations. Along with the photographs are interviews with the artists, who reveal their inspirations behind each piece.
The book also includes an introduction from Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, and a foreword from Will Chase, publisher of Burning Man’s online newsletter, Jackrabbit Speaks. A great display piece or gift, the book comes presented in a handsome slip-case box. Purchase: $29.32 on Amazon.com.