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

by | Permalink | Comments (33) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (33)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.