What Books Would You Choose to Restart Civilization?
Gathering essential books and democratizing human knowledge for future generations
“What books would you want to restart civilization from scratch?”
The Long Now Foundation has been involved in and inspired by projects centered on that question since launching in 01996. (See, for example, The Rosetta Project, Westinghouse Time Capsules, The Human Document Project, The Survivor Library, The Toaster Project, The Crypt of Civilization, and the Voyager Record.) For years, Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose has been in discussions on how to create a record of humanity and technology for our descendants. In 02014, Long Now began building it.
The Manual For Civilization is working toward a living, crowd-curated library of 3,500 books put forward by the Long Now community and on display at The Interval, Long Now’s cafe-bar-salon in San Francisco. To stack the shelves, we solicited book recommendations from Long Now members and supporters, special guest curators like Long Now founders Stewart Brand and Brian Eno, past Seminar speakers like George Dyson and Neal Stephenson, subject experts Maria Popova and Violet Blue, and volunteer curators like Alan Beatts, Michael Pujals, and Heath Rezabek.
Framing the library’s focus as “restarting civilization” may seem apocalyptic or predictive on its face, but that is not the intention. Rather, the hope is to create a curatorial principle that inspires valuable conversation that reframes how we think about where civilization has come so far, where it might go in the future, and what tools are necessary to get it there.
In that sense, The Manual For Civilization is the latest in a centuries-long genealogy of ambitious projects to catalog and, crucially, democratize the most essential human knowledge. Inherent in each project — from Denis Diderot’s famous Encyclopedie to Long Now Co-Founder Stewart Brand’s countercultural bible Whole Earth Catalog to The Manual — is a theory of civilization. There is also inevitably a bias depending on which curatorial principle is emphasized and of course, who does that curation.
When Diderot began editing the Encyclopedie in 01751, the ideas of the Enlightenment held sway only amongst learned philosophes. Power rested in the hands of the clerics. Diderot considered the Encyclopedie as a deliberate attempt to “change the way people think” by democratizing the ideals of the Enlightenment. Controversially, the Encyclopedie’s central organizing principle was based on reason, rather than the authority of the church. In the entry for encyclopedia, he wrote:
The goal of an encyclopedia is to assemble all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the earth, to demonstrate the general system to the people with whom we live, & to transmit it to the people who will come after us, so that the works of centuries past is not useless to the centuries which follow, that our descendants, by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous & happier, & that we do not die without having merited being part of the human race.
Diderot would continue editing the Encyclopedie over the next fifteen years, amassing thousands of entries and enlisting the help of some of the Enlightenment’s most brilliant minds as contributors, including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Diderot’s 35 volumes constituted a:
tremendous storehouse of fact and propaganda that swept Europe and taught it what ‘reason,’ rights,’ ‘authority,’ ‘government,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘equality,’ and related social principles are or should be. The work was subversive in its tendency, not in its advocacy: it took for granted toleration, the march of mind exemplified by science, and the the good of the whole people….The eleven volumes of plates were in themselves a revolutionary force, for they made public what had previously been kept secret by the guilds, and they supported the philosophe doctrine that the dissemination of knowledge was the high road to emancipation.
Two hundred years later, while reflecting on the legacy of the Whole Earth Catalog (01968), Stewart Brand wrote that the Catalog and the Encyclopedie shared a similar aim: to hand “the tools of a whole civilization to its citizens.” Like the Encyclopedie, Brand wrote, the Whole Earth Catalog sought to decentralize authority and redistribute it to individuals through access to knowledge, or tools. Diderot’s Encyclopedie, wrote Brand, “was the leading tool of the Enlightenment.”
Though the first commune-bound readers of the Whole Earth Catalog — those “bands of adventurous malcontents who were setting out to reinvent civilization” — did not exactly restart civilization, their process held “surprising value.” Brand wrote that as the decades passed, the Catalog’s true legacy was glimpsed in the personal computer revolution that followed, which was informed by the same process:
The personal-computer revolution was a direct result of that value system. It was initiated and carried to fruition by youthful longhairs, on purpose, with striking consistency between what was intended and what was accomplished. The impulse was to decentralize authority — to undermine the high priests and air-conditioned mainframes of information technology and hand their power to absolutely everybody.
“Here are the tools to make your life better. And to make the world better,” Brand wrote in his foreword to the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog (01994) — the last edition published. “That they’re the same tools is our theory of civilization.”
In the inaugural Whole Earth Catalog, Brand declared that “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” But we are as gods only because of our ancestors’ diligence. The promise of a technologically advancing future is predicated on millennia of accumulated knowledge. Civilization has taken a lot of work to build, and it demands a great deal of know-how to sustain. And as modern life increasingly encourages specialization, familiarity across that accumulated knowledge’s breadth can wane. Our ability to collaborate is a strength, but beyond a point we risk losing comprehension of the infrastructure — both physical and intellectual — that supports our modern lives. How can we retain that knowledge?
These questions inspired Long Now to build The Manual For Civilization. In developing the experience of The Interval, Long Now integrated the Manual of Civilization book collection into the design layout as two floors of bookshelves that would face outward in The Interval space. The first floor shelves would be open and accessible for browsing, and the upper shelves would be accessible by staff, reached from the front by a tall ladder, or from the opposite side, since the shelves are open to the Long Now office above.
As the opening date of The Interval approached in the summer of 02014, Long Now staff knew there were a lot of empty shelves to fill, but had already started assembling the catalog as well as physical copies of books. In one pre-opening party, a bucket brigade of supporters passed physical books in the door, up the spiral staircase, to people on ladders who arranged the books on shelves, amassing about 1,000 volumes that evening.
Long Now has received over 2,500 submissions and recommendations to the collection so far, with approximately 1,400 approved for inclusion in The Manual by Executive Director Alexander Rose. Currently, 1,007 physical books reside in the Manual’s bookshelves.
The physical collection in The Interval grounds the catalog, and also provides the size constraint of the number of books. But the Long Now community is global, and the reality is that few Long Now members have had the opportunity to peruse our Bay Area-bound library.
Long Now has now begun efforts to digitize the Manual so that the library can be shared with the world. We are partnering with the Internet Archive, who have created a special collection for the Manual, and, for the first time, we are sharing a selection of the titles in our collection as a temporary browse-only catalog on Libib (currently showing 1,174 of the 1,400 selections).
Our plan is to solicit more book lists and recommendations until the list grows to about 5,000 from which we will edit the collection down to the 3,500 or so volumes that can fit on the shelves. We began the collection by using four broad categories to structure the collection:
- Long-term Thinking, Past and Future: these include books on history as well as futurism and many books by Long Now speakers.
- Rigorous Science Fiction: especially works that build richly imagined possible worlds to help us think about the future.
- The Cultural Canon: great works of literature, poetry, philosophy, religion.
- Mechanics of Civilization: “how-to” books for critical skills and technology, for example books on navigation, growing and gathering food, midwifery, forging tools.
Beyond these categories, we are exploring other ways to organize and catalog the collection, and to locate books on shelves. With any scheme though, we want to preserve the experience and delight of serendipitous discovery, of going to the bookshelf to look for one thing, and discovering three or four other things you are curious about.
We also hope to open up the discussion so that we can have an ongoing conversation about which books are in and out of the collection at any point in time, and why. With any curatorial principle comes a bias. This bias is problematic, but can be mitigated in a variety of ways. Wikipedia, for example, makes it possible for anybody to edit and contribute to its catalog. In the case of the Manual, we are committed to evolving our curatorial principle over time, the hope being that as we move through the Long Now, this living collection is responsive, adaptive and open.
We’ve already had a few valuable learning experiences. When the Manual launched, Long Now member and Brainpickings founder Maria Popova contemplated Stewart Brand’s selections for the Manual, and had “only one lament:”
One would’ve hoped that a lens on rebuilding human civilization would transcend the hegemony of the white male slant and would, at minimum, include a more equal gender balance of perspectives — of Brand’s 76 books, only one is written by a woman, one features a female co-author, and one is edited by a woman. It’s rather heartbreaking to see that someone as visionary as Brand doesn’t consider literature by women worthy of representing humanity in the long run. Let’s hope the Long Now balances the equation a bit more fairly as they move forward with the remaining entries in their 3,500-book collaborative library.
Long Now reached out to Popova and invited her to contribute her own list for the Manual. In selecting it, she found it especially challenging to reconcile the curatorial constraints of the Manual with her desire to offer a diverse and balanced representation of essential human knowledge:
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.
The inherent biases in catalogs like the Manual must be acknowledged, and ideally mitigated through open conversation, if such catalogs are to persist over the long term. Over time, we believe that the conversation about what goes into Manual will become as rich and interesting as the collection in the Manual itself.
24 Selections from The Manual For Civilization:
- 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.
- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
- Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison.
- Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America by Stephen J. Pyne.
- The Collected Erotica: An Illustrated Celebration of Human Sexuality Through the Ages by Charlotte Hill and William Wallace.
- The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of The Structure of DNA by James D. Watson.
- Earth From Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
- Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott.
- Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter.
- The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph C. Campbell.
- In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall.
- The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch by Lewis Dartnell.
- Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou.
- The Martian by Andy Weir.
- The Nature of Things by Lucretius.
- Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World by Kevin Kelly.
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
- The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam.
- The Savoy Cocktail Book by Henry Craddock.
- Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
- The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan.
- Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand.
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.
Long Now Seminars on the Future of Knowledge:
Watch Jimmy Wales’ 02006 SALT Talk on Wikipedia and the future of free culture.
Watch Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle’s 02011 SALT Talk on universal access to all knowledge.
Selection Lists for The Manual For Civilization from members of the Long Now community:
- George Dyson
- David Brin, Bruce Sterling, and Daniel Suarez
- Mark Pauline
- Lewis Dartnell
- Neal Stephenson
- Maria Popova
- Meagan and Rick Prelinger
- Kevin Kelly
- Violet Blue
- Stewart Brand
Projects that inspired the Manual For Civilization:
- The Rosetta Project: A multi-millennial micro-etched disk with a record of thousands of the world’s languages.
- Westinghouse Time Capsules: Two time capsules (they actually coined the term for this project) by Westinghouse buried at Worlds Fair sites, one in 01939 and the other 01965 to be recovered in 5000 years. They also did the very smart thing of making a “Book of Record” and an above ground duplicate of the contents on display.
- The Human Document Project: A German project to create a record of humanity that will last one million years.
- Crypt of Civilization: An airtight chamber located at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. The crypt consists of preserved artifacts scheduled to be opened in the year 8113 AD.
- The Voyager Record: The Voyager Golden Records are phonograph records that were included aboard both Voyager spacecraft, which were launched in 1977. They contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or far future humans, who may find them.
- Georgia Guidestones: The four granite Guidestones are covered in inscriptions written in 8 major languages that describe the tenets of their imagined Age of Reason.
- Doomsday Chests by Noah Raford
- The Forever Book an idea by Kevin Kelly
- Global Village Construction Set
- “History of Humanity” project
- The Library of Utility
- The Memory of Mankind project
- The Great Pyramid project
- Digital Clay Tablets
- Arnano sapphire and glass data storage
Content that has been discussed to be used for these projects:
- The Gingery books are great first pass on how to re-start manufacturing technology.
- wikiHow has a lot of great info and it is continuously updated. The entry on how to deliver a baby seems like a particularly handy one…
- The Foxfire Books on homespun technology seem to have a slightly less industrial take than the Gingery books, and are pretty comprehensive.
- The Let’s Say You’ve Gone Back in Time poster to help you restart civilization by Ryan North the creator of the awesome Dinosaur Comics
- The Way Things Work by David Macaulay.
- The Harvard Classics originally known as Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf are often referred to as an item that should go into a record like this.
- Encyclopedia Britannica People often suggest using the latest version that is now out of copyright.
- The Domesday book: The Domesday Book is the record of the great survey of England completed in 1086.
- The Mormon Genealogical Data: This is also held in a bunker outside Salt Lake City Utah, but it might be nice to have a record of gene lines for a future civilization to better understand its past.
- The Top 100 Project Gutenberg books: If you are concerned with archiving works in copyright this is a great source to find texts that are free to use.
- The Internet Archive: An archive of complete snapshots of the web as well as thousands of books and videos.
- Wikipedia: The text only version of this is actually not that large, and could be archived fairly easily. Also one of the few sources that is beginning to get filled out in many languages and is also not held under a copyright.
- How to field dress a deer: PDF pocket version from Penn State College of Agricultural Science.
- The Toaster Project.
- The Panlex Project of cross linked language dictionaries.
- The Survivor Library.