When the future looks dim, we can attend to the present with furious agency, spinning from task to task, forgetting for days on end to practice forethought. How much of this comes from tech-addled information overload and how much from physiological responses to real impending danger is anyone’s guess. But both sources of anxiety drive away thoughts of what Stewart Brand— futurist, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, and one of Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters—calls the “Long Now,” also the name of his foundation advocating “the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility.”
But, you may object, we think of our children, and maybe of our grandchildren, too. Yet when Brand says long, he doesn’t mean 25, 50, or 100 years in the future. Inspired by an imagined clock that ticks away years, centuries, and millennia (and which Long Now is actually building) the foundation aims to create a version of Isaac Asimov’s “library of the deep future.” Long Now—whose board includes Brian Eno, Wired founder Kevin Kelly, and digital map maven David Rumsey—refers to their library as the “Manual for Civilization,” a somewhat grandiose title for a very ambitious project: an archive to help rebuild civilization in case of decimation or catastrophic collapse.
Many of the board members—like Kelly and Eno—have submitted their own lists of recommendations for titles to add to the collection of 3,500 books. (We’ve featured Eno’s list in a previous post.) The sampling of contributors so far is hardly a diverse group, and readers have pointed out that the sampling of authors (it’s overwhelmingly male) isn’t either. That perfectly legitimate criticism aside, these lists do provide us with ways of thinking about the kinds of books some possible future might need to rebuild. Would ancient Greek epics like The Iliad and The Odyssey have much relevance if the world lost its cultural wealth, along with the millions of references to Homer?
These epics, and those of Gilgamesh and Beowulf, have much more to contribute than just historical value. What about the science fiction of Ian Banks? Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius and Lucretius? Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (all six volumes)? All of these appear on Stewart Brand’s list, but so do practical and entertaining surveys like Peter Barber’s The Map Book, and scientific texts like Paul G. Hewitt’s Conceptual Physics and Theodore Gray’s The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe.
Whether we can reasonably expect these books to survive hundreds or thousands of years from now is maybe beside the point. It’s an exercise in futurology. Long Now represents both “a mechanism and a myth,” Brand has written. His heavy emphasis on illustrated nonfiction suggests some critical acknowledgement that future readers may not be fluent and may have few memories of what things once looked like (especially through microscopes and telescopes). His heavy emphasis on classical literature and almost exclusively European history shows a particular cultural bias that may have little justification.
See a selected list of 20 titles from Brand’s list below, and see the full list of 76 books at the Long Now Foundation site here. Find his list myopic or missing some key areas of knowledge? Suggest your own additions in the comments.
The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms by Andrew Robinson
Brave New World (The Folio Society) by Aldous Huxley and illustrated by Leonard Rosoman
Dune by Frank Herbert
The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil
One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism by Rodney Stark
The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington
The Idea of Decline in Western History by Arthur Herman
What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization by Brian Fagan
A History of Civilizations by Fernand Braudel
The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
The Prince by Machiavelli, translated by George Bull, published by Folio Society
The Nature of Things by Lucretius
The Iliad by Homer translated by Robert Fagles
The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories edited by Robert B. Strassler
Brand is not so modest as to exclude his own work, listing his How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built as a candidate for a declining or post-apocalyptic world. That book is also a six-part BBC series, with music by Brian Eno. You can watch the first episode at the top of the post and find all six parts at our previous post on Brand here.
Again, Brand’s complete list of 76 books can be found here.