This Is Burning Man

An inside look at the event known only as Burning Man.

For those who've never heard of Burning Man, it can be hard to explain. It sometimes calls itself an arts festival or an experiment in "radical self-reliance and radical self-expression." Picture a temporary city, built every August in Nevada's barren Black Rock Desert, where as many as 30,000 gather to set up shimmering temples, gardens of flame-shooting lotus flowers, three-story chandeliers that appear to have fallen from the sky, and other marvels they've spent countless hours constructing—for no glory other than the pleasure of their fellow "burners." The blissed-out festival, which operates on a no-barter, no-trade "gift economy," concludes with the ritual conflagration of a 40-foot statue: the Burning Man.

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Doherty traces the evolution of what is now a multimillion-dollar enterprise from the first bonfire gathering at San Francisco's Baker Beach in 1986. "It grew spontaneously and... accidentally," he writes, "evolving into something that has become the measure of thousands of people's lives."

A nine-year veteran of the burn, Doherty comes dangerously close to saying that the event's glory days—which he, of course, experienced—are now behind it. An editor of the libertarian Reason magazine, he has little patience for festival director Larry Harvey's new, more political stance against rampant consumerism, and the ideas and experiences of ravers, progressives, and women—all arguably part of Burning Man's core demographic—are, for the most part, sidelined here. But his book is an intelligent and exhaustive effort to chronicle the explosion of one of America's most implausible subcultures.