Stewart Brand’s List of 76 Books for Rebuilding Civilization

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 Mem­o­ry of the World: The Trea­sures That Record Our His­to­ry from 1700 BC to the Present Day by UNESCO

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Bri­an Eno Lists 20 Books for Rebuild­ing Civ­i­liza­tion & 59 Books For Build­ing Your Intel­lec­tu­al World

Watch Stew­art Brand’s 6‑Part Series How Build­ings Learn, With Music by Bri­an Eno

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

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Comments (4)
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  • Laura says:

    Just want­ed to point out that there is only a sin­gle book by a woman on that list. And I sus­pect that all the books are also by white peo­ple. What kind of mes­sage does that send to the future?

  • Brian C Gay says:

    I would also like to rec­om­mend “Man’s Search for Mean­ing” by Vik­tor Fran­kl. Undoubt­ed­ly if the world needs to be rebuilt, then some­thing dev­as­tat­ing must have hap­pened to cause that deves­ta­tion (zom­bie apoc­olypse, etc…). I think the book would give a very good per­spec­tive to the peo­ple about how to pro­ceed for­ward after such a great loss.


  • Mike says:

    Do we want to rebuild civ­i­liza­tion into the same white-male dom­i­nat­ed world we have today? Giv­en the choice, this list could look a lot dif­fer­ent.

  • david says:

    As for using Hux­ley’s book to rebuild civ­i­liza­tion, rec­og­niz­ing the pow­er of brave new world, I like to think that “Island”, his final book would prob­a­bly be more use­ful…

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