33 Books on How to Live and a Russian Nesting Doll

Maria Popova. Photo by Elizabeth Lippman for The New York Times

Long Now Member Maria Popova is the mastermind behind the popular cultural blog of ideas known as Brain Pickings. The blog was founded in 02006, where she reviews books, writes multiple blog entries and tweets 50 times a day, all while balancing on a wobble board. This lifelong bibliophile has also written for Wired UK, The New York Times, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow. Now, she has compiled a reading list of 33 books to join our collection of the 3,500 volumes most essential to sustain and rebuild civilization.

When we launched the Manual for Civilization project, it was a natural fit with her interests and expertise. She reviewed Brian Eno’s selected list for the Manual for Civilization and contemplated Stewart Brand’s 76-book list, noting that only 1.5 of the books Brand suggested were authored by women.

Here is an excerpt of Maria’s thoughtful reflections on creating her own list:

In grappling with the challenge, I faced a disquieting and inevitable realization: The predicament of diversity is like a Russian nesting doll — once we crack one layer, there’s always another, a fractal-like subdivision that begins at the infinite and approaches the infinitesimal, getting exponentially granular with each layer, but can never be fully finished. If we take, for instance, the “women problem” — to paraphrase Margaret Atwood — then what about Black women? Black queer women? Non-Western Black queer women? Non-English-speaking non-Western Black queer women? Non-English-speaking non-Western Black queer women of Jewish descent?
And on and on. Due to that infinite fractal progression, no attempt to “solve” diversity — especially no thirty-item list — could ever hope to be complete. The same goes for other variables like genre or subject: For every aficionado of fiction, there’s one of drama, then 17th-century drama, then 17th-century Italian drama, and so on.

Popova presents us with a set of books that have helped her learn “how to make sense of ourselves, our world, and our place in it.” Many of her selected books have additional links to detailed reviews she previously wrote, providing more insight and context.

Rather than listing the books here, you can read her list on the Brain Pickings site (which we encourage you to explore): 33 Books on How to Live: My Reading List for the Long Now Foundation’s Manual for Civilization.

Thanks to Maria for taking the time and care to recommend these books for our collection. You can read more lists from Kevin Kelly, Brian Eno, Neal Stephenson, Stewart Brand, Violet Blue, Tim O’Reilly. And remember you can visit the Manual Library in person in San Francisco at The Interval.


This list is an excerpt of the 3,500 book crowd-curated Manual For Civilization library which we are compiling to back up the essential knowledge of civilization. More than 800 titles are already available online at The Internet Archive.

Originally published at blog.longnow.org on April 9, 02014.