What Books Could Be Used to Rebuild Civilization?: Lists by Brian Eno, Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly & Other Forward-Thinking Minds

One par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­tress­ing hall­mark of late moder­ni­ty can be char­ac­ter­ized as a cul­tur­al loss of the future. Where we once delight­ed in imag­in­ing the turns civ­i­liza­tion would take hun­dreds and even thou­sands of years ahead—projecting rad­i­cal designs, inno­v­a­tive solu­tions, great explo­rations, and pecu­liar evo­lu­tion­ary developments—we now find the mode of fore­cast­ing has grown apoc­a­lyp­tic, as cli­mate change and oth­er cat­a­stroph­ic, man-made glob­al phe­nom­e­na make it dif­fi­cult to avoid some very dire con­clu­sions about humanity’s impend­ing fate. We can add to this assess­ment the loss of what we may call the “long view” in our day-to-day lives.

As the Long Now Foun­da­tion co-founder Stew­art Brand describes it, “civ­i­liza­tion is revving itself into a patho­log­i­cal­ly short atten­tion span,” dri­ven by “the accel­er­a­tion of tech­nol­o­gy, the short-hori­zon per­spec­tive of mar­ket-dri­ven eco­nom­ics, the next-elec­tion per­spec­tive of democ­ra­cies, or the dis­trac­tions of per­son­al mul­ti-task­ing.”

Such is the tex­ture of mod­ern exis­tence, and though we may run our hands over it dai­ly, remark­ing on how tight­ly woven the fab­ric is, we seem to have few-to-no mech­a­nisms for unweaving—or even loosening—the threads. Enter the Long Now Foun­da­tion and its pro­pos­al of “both a mech­a­nism and a myth” as a means encour­ag­ing “the long view and the tak­ing of long-term respon­si­bil­i­ty.”


Image cour­tesy of Because We Can

Inspired by com­put­er sci­en­tist Daniel Hill’s idea for a Stone­henge-sized clock that “ticks once a year, bongs once a cen­tu­ry, and the cuck­oo comes out every mil­len­ni­um,” the foun­da­tion pro­pos­es a num­ber of projects and guide­lines for restor­ing long-term think­ing, includ­ing “mind­ing myth­ic depth,” “reward­ing patience,” and “ally­ing with com­pe­ti­tion.” The clock, ini­tial­ly a thought exper­i­ment, is becom­ing a real­i­ty, as you can see in the short video above, with a mas­sive, “mon­u­ment scale” ver­sion under con­struc­tion in West Texas and scale pro­to­types in Lon­don and the Long Now Foundation’s San Fran­cis­co head­quar­ters. Large­ly a sym­bol­ic ges­ture, the “10,000 year clock,” as it’s called, has been joined with anoth­er, emi­nent­ly prac­ti­cal under­tak­ing rem­i­nis­cent of Isaac Asimov’s Ency­clo­pe­dia Galac­ti­ca—a “library of the deep future.”

One wing of this library, the Man­u­al for Civ­i­liza­tion, aims to com­pile a col­lec­tion of 3,500 books in the Foun­da­tion’s phys­i­cal space—books deemed most like­ly to “sus­tain or rebuild civ­i­liza­tion.” To begin the project, var­i­ous future-mind­ed con­trib­u­tors have been asked to make their own lists of books to add. The first list comes from musician/composer/producer/musical futur­ist and found­ing board mem­ber Bri­an Eno, who named the foun­da­tion. Oth­er notable con­trib­u­tors include Long Now Foun­da­tion pres­i­dent Stew­art Brand and board mem­ber and co-founder of Wired mag­a­zine Kevin Kel­ly. Below, see the first ten titles from each of these futurist’s lists, and fur­ther down, links to the full list of con­trib­u­tors’ selec­tions so far. As you scan the titles below, and browse through each contributor’s list, con­sid­er why and how each of these books would help human­i­ty rebuild civ­i­liza­tion, and sug­gest books of your own in the com­ments.

10 Titles from Bri­an Eno’s Man­u­al for Civ­i­liza­tion list

10 Titles from Stew­art Brand’s Man­u­al for Civ­i­liza­tion list

10 Titles from Kevin Kelly’s Man­u­al for Civ­i­liza­tion list

Once again, these are only excerpts from longer lists by these three futur­is­tic thinkers. For their com­plete selec­tions, click on their lists below, as well as those from such cul­tur­al fig­ures as sci-fi writer Neal Stephen­son and Brain Pick­ings’ edi­tor Maria Popo­va. And please let us know: Which books would you include in the “Man­u­al for Civ­i­liza­tion” library project, and why? You can also add your own sug­ges­tions for the grow­ing library at the Long Now Foun­da­tion’s web­site.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Books Should Every Intel­li­gent Per­son Read?: Tell Us Your Picks; We’ll Tell You Ours

Neil deGrasse Tyson Lists 8 (Free) Books Every Intel­li­gent Per­son Should Read

The 10 Great­est Books Ever, Accord­ing to 125 Top Authors (Down­load Them for Free)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (33)
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  • Bob Higgins says:

    What books might we read if we’re inter­est­ed in sav­ing civ­i­liza­tion rather than start­ing from zero?

  • Ronny says:

    This is a very inspir­ing idea.

  • Urbano says:

    From, these lists, it looks like rebuilt civ­i­liza­tion would con­tin­ue to ignore the ideas and works of women.

  • Barbara says:

    I agree with Urbano, no women that I can find. I won­der if there are so few who wrote in this genre way back when. Also, peo­ple of col­or. I know a lot of Native Amer­i­cans who have writ­ing in this area. I want to thank you for the work you have done, it is valu­able, but short of all Amer­i­cans. It is great for white amer­i­cans.

  • Armando Gascón says:

    these lists are laugh­able, par­tic­u­lar­ly the one by Bri­an Eno: rub­bish!
    The Face of Bat­tle ! by Kee­gan, the dis­abled.

    How adept are the Ang­los at beat­ing their own drum.
    No books from France, Italy, Ger­many, Japan or Spain.
    Don Quixote, Can­dide, l’En­cy­clo­pe­die de Diderot, the Sys­tema Nat­u­rae, The Ori­gin of Species and the Voy­age of the Bea­gle, Episo­dios Nacionales de Galdós; Petrar­ca, Galileo, Chekhov. My Cen­tu­ry, by Grass. The Pil­low Book.

    I don’t see the Bible in the list, either.

  • Chris Nunez says:

    Why do I not see any wom­en’s names among the con­trib­u­tors?

    Revis­it this ques­tion with a broad­er list of con­trib­u­tors, and more diverse per­spec­tives… it’s the 21st cen­tu­ry for the love of life!

  • Douglas Ledet says:

    “Stranger in a strange land”

  • Josh Jones says:

    Chris, there are three women con­trib­u­tors on the full list above, and five on the web­site (two haven’t sub­mit­ted their lists yet).

  • cL says:

    so 10% female rep­re­sen­ta­tion is ok? just like the pop­u­la­tion… oh wait…

  • Josh Jones says:

    No one said it was okay. I think the crit­i­cisms are valid. I sim­ply respond­ed to the state­ment that there are no wom­en’s names among the con­trib­u­tors.

  • Kevin R says:

    Two thoughts.
    1)Several of the lists seem more focused on pre­serv­ing the best works of our cur­rent civ­i­liza­tion than on rebuild­ing a new one.

    2) Peo­ple have expressed an inter­est in a “broad­er list of con­trib­u­tors, and more diverse per­spec­tives”. I agree, but it should be about diver­si­ty of careers and back­grounds than on super­fi­cial dif­fer­ences in race and gen­der. Butch­ers, bak­ers, weavers, pot­ters, can­ners, farm­ers, hunters and anglers, print­ers and book­binders, masons, min­ers, roofers, car­pen­ters, machin­ists and mechan­ics, doc­tors, nurs­es, nurse prac­ti­tion­ers, engi­neers, geol­o­gists, chemists, physi­cists, math­e­mati­cians, and car­tog­ra­phers would all present dif­fer­ent ideas about the essen­tial books that are need­ed to main­tain their own indi­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions to civ­i­liza­tion.

    What are the essen­tial skills that human­i­ty must main­tain to rebuild civ­i­liza­tion and what are the essen­tial texts that prac­ti­tion­ers of those skills rely on.

  • James says:

    This isn’t project isn’t nov­el, but it’s a step is a good posi­tion, it desires the so called “Great Books” (see Alan Bloom et al), of which I am an advo­cate. How­ev­er, they seem to be going at it strange­ly. We should restate the projects ques­tion from, “which books are more like­ly to REBUILD civ­i­liza­tion, to “which books most influ­enced our cur­rent civ­i­liza­tion in the first place”.

    First, and this won’t be received well, but I’m very sur­prised the Bible isn’t the first on such a list. Despite whether or not the one’s choos­ing these books actu­al­ly agree with the con­tent there­in, the Bible is still, nev­er­the­less a huge com­mon cra­dle of west­ern civ­i­liza­tion. And that’s exact­ly the type of book these folks ought to be look­ing for, not the kind that they most agree with, but rather the kind that most influ­enced west­ern reflec­tion. With that said, here’s a nice list,


    More­over, more works from philoso­phers and the­olo­gians are due, phi­los­o­phy and the­ol­o­gy, not sci­ence, are the pil­lars of west­ern civ­i­liza­tion. You would­n’t HAVE mod­ern sci­ence with­out first hav­ing the­o­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal reflec­tion about nature. Fur­ther­more, sci­ence is marked with a rich, var­ie­gat­ed tex­ture of assump­tions that sci­ence her­self is impo­tent to prove, assump­tions which find their jus­ti­fi­ca­tion in both phi­los­o­phy and ulti­mate­ly the­ol­o­gy. Con­tact me at SubterFugitive1@yahoo.com if you would like a dis­cus­sion.

  • James M says:

    The books should be left as a warn­ing: fol­low these ideas and your civ­i­liza­tion will one day have to be rebuilt.

  • Robert Flesch says:

    This list is insane.
    If you want books on how to rebuild civ­i­liza­tion.
    Lets see, lets start with a book on Farm­ing — keep­ing peo­ple alive seems like a good place to start.
    Some fel­low in Penn­syl­va­nia put togeth­er a list of plans on how to build sim­ple farm imple­ments. A book on iron work­ing. Con­struc­tion tech­niques, med­i­cine (more the herbal type) and bac­te­ria, hygiene.
    Are these guys insane, a book on art? I cant think of any art book that are going to make the top 10. Lets include how to build sim­ple steam engines, ques­tion real­ly is how far back have we been pushed, and what do we know?

  • Keith says:

    The Book of Sand, as imag­ined by Borges, should be enough.

  • Pink Panther says:

    Evo­lu­tion the­o­ry non­sense strik­ing back at you… If there is no (lov­ing) God, nobody is able to res­cue us from our obses­sive self destruc­tion, and we would NEVER have a sec­ond chance, at least not on this love­ly plan­et, the only one nice to Human Life, in whole of Uni­verse. We need to become hum­ble again, and ask The Lord to redeem us, once more… There is no oth­er way.

  • Brian says:

    Please add books about Eco­nom­ics such as acclaimed Aus­tri­an Eco­nom­ics by Luwdig von Mis­es, Friedrich Hayek, Carl Menger, Hen­ry Hazlitt, Peter Schiff and the Chica­go School of Eco­nom­ics Mil­ton Fried­man and Thomas Sow­ell.

  • john conroy says:

    Aston­ish­ing­ly bad choic­es if the goal were to ‘rebuild civil­i­sa­tion’

  • Tom Hinrichs says:

    I have to agree — these lists seem slant­ed towards pre­serv­ing those parts of our cul­ture that we’re proud of, rather than help­ing to rebuild a civ­i­liza­tion. What we’d want are books that are infor­ma­tion­al­ly dense, like the CRC hand­book. Now that could save some­one a lot of time.

  • Carl Youngblood says:

    I’m sur­prised nobody men­tioned The Knowl­edge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch, by Lewis Dart­nell.

  • Mike Morrison says:

    I think you have to include the Bible if only for Gen­e­sis and the Ser­mon on the Mount.
    I would include East of Eden by Stein­beck.. the deep­est explo­ration of the dichotomies with­in us.
    I think there needs to be at least one work of Sci­ence fic­tion to remind our­selves of what human imag­i­na­tion is cap­bable of.. any­thing by Phillip Jose’ Farmer would be my choice.
    some­thing by Toni Mor­ri­son to help us see through the eyes of minor­i­tys.

  • Gault Falcon says:

    RE: Some of the pre­vi­ous com­ments on diver­si­ty.
    Diver­si­ty when learn­ing how to rebuild the basic mechan­i­cal struc­ture that makes sus­tain­able life pos­si­ble is a dis­trac­tion at best. What mat­ters is life, not diver­si­ty. Iron­i­cal­ly, it is this focus on mean­ing­less dif­fer­ences that, at least in part, may be respon­si­ble for humankind’s undo­ing. Even more iron­ic that some would like to rebuild that detri­ment right back into the fab­ric of a gen­e­sis project. Appar­ent­ly, this virus is now genet­i­cal­ly set. What a shame and a waste. As a species if we are not capa­ble of iden­ti­fy­ing and purg­ing cul­tur­al virus­es like polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness then per­haps we are not wor­thy of sur­vival.

  • Roman Sivkin says:

    Just need one book: Finnegans Wake. As Joseph Camp­bell remarked, if civ­i­liza­tion were to go “boom!” tomor­row, we’d be able to find out why it went “boom!” and also rebuild it by read­ing Finnegans Wake.

  • Jonathan says:

    Any destroyed civ­i­liza­tion that need­ed to learn farm­ing from a book would prob­a­bly be beyond sav­ing. That’s not the kind of knowl­edge that needs to be passed down from a book. Well, I can think of a few sce­nar­ios, like say, if all the adults in the world dis­ap­peared and there was no one left. But I don’t think sci­ence fic­tion sce­nar­ios are what they had in mind here.

  • Caleb Avery says:

    I ful­ly expect­ed the list to con­tain pri­mar­i­ly books on these sub­jects:

    Soil Main­te­nance
    Deal­ing with var­i­ous insects and weeds
    Edi­ble plant iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in many the worlds envi­ron­ments
    Pre­serv­ing meats veg­eta­bles etc
    Basics of hunt­ing and trap­ping var­i­ous ani­mals plan­et wide
    How make flint tools, build a fire, make sling, make a bow and arrows etc
    First aid all the way through phar­ma­col­o­gy and brain surgery
    Physics, chem­istry, math (every­thing avail­able on math), all the sci­ences etc etc

    In oth­er words how to man­u­als for every­thing we have done from “the Stone Age to the Com­put­er Age”. And every vol­ume should have a pref­ace that lists cau­tions about when this par­tic­u­lar technology/skill/practice has failed us. As in caus­es mas­sive amounts of pol­lu­tion so if you have to don’t do it for very long, or this prac­tice did­n’t leave our crop with enough genet­ic diver­si­ty. And all the things we tried to fix a prob­lem that did­n’t work. So they don’t have to repeat the same tri­al and errors.
    There should also be every­thing we know about most of the like­ly civ­i­liza­tion end­ing sce­nar­ios and any­thing that may be of help in those spe­cif­ic sit­u­a­tions.

    That’s what I was expect­ing.

    Per­son­al­ly I don’t think they should do it only as paper books in a library. A pur­pose built e‑book read­er that holds all of the above in a ruggedi­zed water­proof case with an easel solar pan­el back (with built in switch to war direct from solar when bat­tery no longer will charge) would allow thou­sands to be pro­duced for each coun­try. Dis­trib­ute them to all the major library’s and keep them all in portable EMP proof fire safes. That would ensure that at least some would sur­vive almost any con­ceiv­able dis­as­ter.

    And on each con­ti­nent at least one or two loca­tions where a huge bunker has all of this info laser etched very deeply onto tita­ni­um plates. Each plate anchored to a gran­ite pedestal about waist high with a two inch thick bul­let proof glass cov­er. Suck the air out and fill with nitro­gen or some oth­er inert gas.

    Very sim­ple. ;-)

  • batur says:

    sor­ry guys but this civil­i­sa­tion is already lost.
    we have to build a new one with new books too.

  • Caleb Avery says:

    Oh most cer­tain­ly. But that does­n’t mean any upcom­ing civil­i­sa­tion should­n’t be giv­en the oper­tu­ni­ty to learn from this one. We could leave out every­thing except skill sets that direct­ly applic­a­ble to sur­vival. From farm­ing through to atom­ic engi­neer­ing. Just include with every “How To: X” a com­plete out­line of all the dan­gers that go along with. Fine, leave out all the fic­tion, his­to­ry, polit­i­cal sci­ence, reli­gion, phi­los­o­phy etc. But if any civil­i­sa­tion is going to ever make it to an eco­log­i­cal, eco­nom­i­cal, non­vi­o­lent equi­lib­ri­um and pos­si­bly spread far­ther into the uni­verse would­n’t being giv­en a few short­cuts give them an advan­tage? Math, all the sci­ences and engi­neer­ing would go a long way to giv­ing rem­nants of our civil­i­sa­tion or a total­ly new one a hand up so to speak.

  • Larry Sullivan says:

    the fox­fire book series
    SAS sur­vival hand­book
    the hand book of chem­istry and physics 44th edi­tion
    Boat­build­ing: A Com­plete Hand­book of Wood­en Boat Con­struc­tion
    Hand­book of Edi­ble Wild Plants and Weeds (series)
    gray’s anato­my
    US Army Spe­cial Forces Med­ical Hand­book
    Uni­ver­si­ty of Cen­tral Flori­da MEDICINAL BOTANY
    Tool Mak­ing for Wood­work­ers
    fun­da­men­tals of elec­tric­i­ty

  • David says:

    The works of prof. Tolkien the sil­mar­il­lion, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit..to teach us vourage innthe face of adver­si­ty and to face and defeat evil. Also the Fox­fire series of books on how to lo live off grid and with­out stores.

  • Tom says:

    Some of these are pre­ten­tious crap. We should be sav­ing chil­dren’s books to allow thenext gen­er­a­tion to read

  • Bill W. says:

    The Holy Bible is all you need to “rebuild” civ­i­liza­tion. Our world is doomed because of the evil men do, rather than fol­low­ing God’s com­mand­ments. As his­to­ry proves, sin, both per­son­al, and uni­ver­sal, leads to down­fall, some­thing unad­dressed in any of these human­ist-cen­tric books.

  • Andrew Lugton says:

    May I sug­gest The Knowl­edge — How to Rebuild our World After an Apoc­a­lypse, by Lewis Dar­nell?

  • The Anome says:

    Reli­gious texts and the god fetish may very well be the death of all of us.

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