The Books We Can Use to Rebuild Civilization, Selected by Neal Stephenson, Brian Eno, Tim O’Reilly & More

With so many of us across the world stuck at home, human­i­ty’s thoughts have turned to what we’ll do when we can resume our nor­mal lives. This time of quar­an­tine, lock­down, and oth­er forms of iso­la­tion urges us to reflect, but also to read — and in many cas­es to read the impor­tant books we’d neglect­ed in our pre-coro­n­avirus lives. Quite a few such vol­umes appear in the Long Now Foun­da­tion’s “Man­u­al for Civ­i­liza­tion,” which long­time Open Cul­ture read­ers will remem­ber us fea­tur­ing not long after it launched in 2014. Its name refers to a library, one that accord­ing to the Foun­da­tion’s exec­u­tive direc­tor Alexan­der Rose “will include the rough­ly 3500 books most essen­tial to sus­tain or rebuild civ­i­liza­tion.”

“Using this as an cura­to­r­i­al prin­ci­ple,” Rose adds, “is help­ing us assem­ble a very inter­est­ing col­lec­tion of books.” So too are their choic­es of peo­ple asked for rec­om­men­da­tions of books to put on the Man­u­al for Civ­i­liza­tion’s shelves.

Take, for instance, the his­to­ry-focused list of books pro­vid­ed by Snow CrashCrypto­nom­i­con, and The Baroque Cycle author Neal Stephen­son, a pro­lif­ic writer in his own right:

  • Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol­umes 1–6 by Edward Gib­bon
  • The Odyssey by Homer trans­lat­ed by Robert Fagles
  • The Ili­ad by Homer trans­lat­ed by Robert Fagles
  • The Struc­tures of Every­day Life: Civ­i­liza­tion & Cap­i­tal­ism, 15th-18th Cen­tu­ry, Vol­umes 1–3 by Fer­nand Braudel
  • 1491: New Rev­e­la­tions of the Amer­i­c­as Before Colum­bus by Charles C. Mann
  • Newton’s Prin­cip­ia for the Com­mon Read­er by S. Chan­drasekhar
  • Leviathan: Or the Mat­ter, Forme, and Pow­er of a Com­mon­wealth Eccle­si­as­ti­call and Civ­il by Thomas Hobbes
  • The Amer­i­can Prac­ti­cal Nav­i­ga­tor: An Epit­o­me of Nav­i­ga­tion by Nathaniel Bowditch
  • Pax Bri­tan­ni­ca: A Three Vol­ume Set (Heaven’s Com­mand, Pax Bri­tan­ni­ca, and Farewell the Trum­pets) by James Mor­ris
  • Son Of The Morn­ing Star: Custer and the Lit­tle Bighorn by Evan S. Con­nell
  • The Siege at Peking by Peter Flem­ing
  • Marl­bor­ough, His Life & Times, Vol­umes 1–6 by Win­ston Churchill
  • The Mak­ing of the Atom­ic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
  • Dark Sun: The Mak­ing of the Hydro­gen Bomb by Richard Rhodes
  • The Road to Real­i­ty: A Com­plete Guide to the Laws of the Uni­verse by Roger Pen­rose

The Long Now Foun­da­tion did­n’t just approach Stephen­son because they enjoy his nov­els: he was pre­vi­ous­ly involved with the Foun­da­tion’s “Clock of the Long Now” project, a mechan­i­cal clock engi­neered to keep time for 10,000 years and thus serve as a phys­i­cal reminder of the neces­si­ty of long-term think­ing. The process of com­ing up with ideas for the Clock pro­vid­ed Stephen­son with inspi­ra­tion for his nov­el Anath­em, which deals with monas­tic com­mu­ni­ties of intel­lec­tu­als ded­i­cat­ed to safe­guard­ing knowl­edge against the col­lapse of soci­ety.

Music pro­duc­er and visu­al artist Bri­an Eno’s album Jan­u­ary 07003 / Bell Stud­ies for The Clock of The Long Now also came out of his own work on the Clock, and as a found­ing mem­ber of the Long Now Foun­da­tion he nat­u­ral­ly also had a list of books (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture) rich with his­tor­i­cal, polit­i­cal, philo­soph­i­cal, soci­o­log­i­cal, archi­tec­tur­al, lit­er­ary, and aes­thet­ic texts to con­tribute:

More recent­ly, pro­gram­mer and pub­lish­er Tim O’Reil­ly drew up an even more expan­sive list of books for addi­tion to the Man­u­al for Civ­i­liza­tion. Owing to the wide and ever-grow­ing array of tech­ni­cal books put out by the pub­lish­er that bears his name, you might guess that O’Reil­ly would most­ly rec­om­mend vol­umes per­ti­nent to rebuild­ing our dig­i­tal world. In fact he offers a range of high­ly ana­log choic­es, the­mat­i­cal­ly speak­ing, which he breaks down into four cat­e­gories. First come the “religious/ philo­soph­i­cal works”:

  • The Way of Life Accord­ing to Lao Tzu trans­lat­ed by Wit­ter Byn­ner
  • The Bha­gavad Gita trans­lat­ed by Christo­pher Ish­er­wood
  • The Analects of Con­fu­cius trans­lat­ed by Roger Ames and Hen­ry Rose­mont
  • The Tri­al and Death of Socrates by Pla­to (trans­lat­ed by GMA Grube, revised by John Coop­er)
  • Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugene Her­rigel
  • The New Tes­ta­ment
  • An Intro­duc­tion to Real­is­tic Phi­los­o­phy by John Wild
  • The Hero With a Thou­sand Faces by Joseph Camp­bell
  • The Masks of God (4 vol­umes) by Joseph Camp­bell

Then the lit­er­a­ture:

  • The Com­plete Works of William Shake­speare
  • Chapman’s Homer: The Ili­ad and The Odyssey trans­lat­ed by George Chap­man
  • Samuel John­son: Poems and Select­ed Prose
  • To the Light­house by Vir­ginia Woolf
  • The Palm at the End of the Mind by Wal­lace Stevens
  • The Four Quar­tets by T.S.Eliot

Then books about “sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, and soci­ety”:

  • A Pat­tern Lan­guage by Christo­pher Alexan­der
  • The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities by Jane Jacobs
  • Gov­ern­ing the Com­mons by Eli­nor Ostrom
  • The Plea­sure of Find­ing Things Out by Richard Feyn­man
  • The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics by Richard Feyn­man

And final­ly, “stuff that would be use­ful if civ­i­liza­tion declines”:

  • The Fox­fire Books edit­ed by Eliot Wig­gin­ton (more info)
  • The Track­er: The True Sto­ry of Tom Brown Jr. by Tom Brown
  • Putting Food By by Ruth Hertzberg
  • Luther Bur­bank: His Meth­ods and Dis­cov­er­ies and Their Prac­ti­cal Appli­ca­tion by Luther Bur­bank
  • Plant and mush­room iden­ti­fi­ca­tion man­u­als for every major geog­ra­phy: Edi­ble Wild Plants: A North Amer­i­can Field Guide and Edi­ble Wild Mush­rooms of North Amer­i­ca
  • Guide to Iden­ti­fy­ing Trees and Shrubs by Mark Zam­par­do

O’Reil­ly adds that “you also need engi­neer­ing, includ­ing (bicy­cles, flight, bridges, and fac­to­ries), spin­ning and weav­ing and the man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­nol­o­gy there­of, met­al­lur­gy, mate­ri­als sci­ence, math (includ­ing slide rule design and log­a­rith­mic tables), chem­istry, biol­o­gy, fun­da­men­tals of com­put­er chips (and alter­nate ways of doing com­put­ing with­out the abil­i­ty to do a full fab).”

At the Long Now Foun­da­tion’s site you’ll find more rec­om­men­da­tions by such lumi­nar­ies as Whole Earth Cat­a­log founder Stew­art Brand, Wired found­ing edi­tor Kevin Kel­ly, and Brain Pick­ings cura­tor Maria Popo­va. Whether your inter­ests incline toward the tech­ni­cal, the his­tor­i­cal, the philo­soph­i­cal, or toward prac­ti­cal­ly any­thing else besides, the Man­u­al for Civ­i­liza­tion has more than a few books for you to digest. (Near­ly 900 of them are avail­able for free at the Inter­net Archive.) What’s more, the coro­n­avirus has grant­ed an entire­ly plau­si­ble excuse to spend more of our days read­ing — and a fair­ly good rea­son to con­sid­er how we might run soci­ety dif­fer­ent­ly in the future.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Stew­art Brand’s List of 76 Books for Rebuild­ing Civ­i­liza­tion

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)

Why You Should Read The Plague, the Albert Camus Nov­el the Coro­n­avirus Has Made a Best­seller Again

Ray Brad­bury Explains Why Lit­er­a­ture is the Safe­ty Valve of Civ­i­liza­tion (in Which Case We Need More Lit­er­a­ture!)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (5)
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  • Gabriela Gavrilov says:

    This is a great list, will be sure to keep it and add many of these titles to my library…and incor­po­rate them into my work. Cur­rent­ly writ­ing the 3rd tome of my series Fire on the Steppe, A His­tor­i­cal Nov­el of Rus­sia and the Unit­ed States which reveals the hid­den com­mer­cial rela­tions between the West and Russia/USSR which shaped our mod­ern world.

  • André Bueno says:

    Is there no cul­ture and civ­i­liza­tion out­side Europe and the Unit­ed States? This list is, in a way, a pro­jec­tion of today’s mis­takes into the future.

  • yvonne Lynch says:

    I hap­pen have a few of these books in my library. I most cer­tain­ly will reread them and add a few of the oth­ers.
    Thank you.

  • Lonnie says:

    The US is the most advanced coun­try. I don’t care what any per­son, orga­ni­za­tion, or list says. We lead; every­one else fol­lows.

  • Raheel says:

    So civil­i­sa­tion needs to be re-built only from a pre-dom­i­nant­ly Euro­pean per­spec­tive? Would encour­age the cura­tor to widen their per­spec­tive.

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