George Dyson’s Selections for The Manual for Civilization

George Dyson selects books from his library, Photo: Alexander Rose

From Long Now’s Executive Director, Alexander Rose:
Some time ago I stopped in to visit the author George Dyson at his shop and home north of Seattle to walk through his book collection and get his suggestions for our collection of books called the Manual for Civilization. We’ve done similar personal library tours with Neal Stephenson, Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and other experts with amazing collections of books, as we work to complete our list of the most essential knowledge to sustain or rebuild civilization.

Boat-building books feature prominently in his collection. Photo: Alexander Rose

George Dyson is the technological historian behind books such as Darwin Among the Machines, Project Orion, and Turing’s Cathedral. He is also a world authority in building traditional (and non-traditional) Aleut kayaks, and it was at his boat building shop where we met up. One end of his shop is all books on traditional boat building and general fabrication techniques.

After making book selections there we drove to his home where just about every room was lined with books on various technologies. Each book he pulled off the shelves elicited a story, sometimes short, sometimes long. The books ranged from incredibly detailed technical manuals to Jules Verne’s fiction to early computer and cybernetic theory.

One could easily see his library as a type of stand alone Manual for Civilization, and getting his top picks to add to our collection has filled out some corners that we had never even considered. We’ve begun collecting these titles and look forward to adding them all to our physical and digital collections over time.

Note: Many books on Dyson’s list are available for free on the Internet Archive. We’ve provided links to those editions if possible, and to Amazon otherwise.

Here’s George Dyson’s book list:

700 Science Experiments for Everyone by UNESCO (01958)

A Conrad Argosy by Joseph Conrad (01942)

A Conrad Argosy by Joseph Conrad

A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates by The Rand Corporation (01955)

A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World by George Vancouver (3 vols., 01798)

Atomic Energy for Military Purposes: A General Account of the Scientific Research and Technical Development That Went into the Making of Atomic Bombs by Henry D. Smyth (1945)

Bering’s Voyages edited by Frank Alfred Golder (Vol. 1, 1922, Vol. 2, 1925)

Between Human and Machine by David A. Mindell (2002)

Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart (1917)

Canoes of Oceania by Alfred C. Haddon and James Hornell (1936, 1937, 1938; reprinted, 3 vols. in 1, 1975)

Chainsaw Lumbermaking by Will Malloff (1982)

Complete Works by Joseph Conrad (25 vols., 1924)

Cottage Economy by William Cobbett (1926)

Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine by Norbert Wiener (1948)

Chainsaw Lumbermaking by Will Malloff; Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener; Between Human and Machine by David A. Mindell

Cybernetics: Transactions of the Eighth Conference March 15–16, 1951 edited by Heinz Von Foerster (1952)

Decimal Classification and Relativ Index Edition 12 Volume 1: Tables by Melville Dewey (1927)

Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences by Galileo Galilei (translated from the Latin of 1638 by Henry Crew and Alfonso de Salvio, 1914)

Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains by H.D. Harrington (1967)

Engineers’ Dreams: Great Projects That Could Come True by Willy Ley (1954)

Farthest North by Fridtjof Nansen (2 vols., 1899)

Food and Emergency Food in the Circumpolar Area by Kerstin Eidlitz (1969)

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne (1865)

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

Guide to Common Edible Plants of British Columbia by Adam F. Szczawinski and George A. Hardy (1972)

Hydrodynamics in Ship Design by Harold Eugene Saunders (Vol. 1, 1956, Vol. 2, 1957, & Vol. 3, 1965)

Instinct and Reason: Deduced from Electro-Biology by Alfred Smee (1850)

Intelligence of Animals: with Special Reference to Insects by Sir John Lubbock (1904)

Intelligent Life in the Universe by I.S. Shklovskii and Carl Sagan (1966)

Ishi: in two worlds by Theodora Kroeber (1967)

Ishi: in two worlds by Theodora Kroeber

John von Neumann: Collected Works (Vol. V: Design of Computers, Theory of Automata and Numerical Analysis) edited by A.H. Taub (1963)

Kayaks of Alaska by Harvey Golden (2016)

Kayaks of Greenland by Harvey Golden (2006)

Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future by Olaf Stapledon (1930)

Machine Intelligence edited by Donald Michie (10 vols., 1967–1982)

Manual of Ski Mountaineering edited by David Brower (1962)

Materials Handbook by George Stuart Brady (first published 1929, updated regularly)

Mechanisation of Thought Processes edited by the (UK) National Physical Laboratory (2 vols., 1959)

Men of Mathematics by E.T. Bell (1937)

My Life with the Eskimo by Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1913)

Ocean Passages for the World by H.L. Jenkins, Royal Navy Hydrographic Department (3rd edition, 1973)

On Distributed Communications by Paul Baran and the RAND Corporation (10 vols., 1964)

Ouroboros; or, The Mechanical Extension of Mankind by Garet Garrett (1926)

Philosophical Experiments and Observations by Robert Hooke (1726)

Probability and the Weighing of Evidence by Irving J. Good (1950)

Self-Organizing Systems: Proceedings of an Interdisciplinary Conference edited by Marshal C. Yovits and Scott Cameron (1960)

Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer (1953)

Skinboats of Greenland by H.C. Peterson (1986)

Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon (1937)

The Aeropleustic Art: Or Navigation in The Air, By Means of Kites, or Buoyant Sails by George Pocock (1827)

The Aeropleustic Art: Or Navigation in The Air, By Means of Kites, or Buoyant Sails by George Pocock

The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America by Edwin Tappan Adney and Howard I. Chapelle (1964)

The Book of Experiments by Leonard de Vries, translated by Eric G. Breeze (1960)

The Irish Currach Folk by Richard Mac Cullagh (1992)

The Journals of Captain James Cook edited by J.C. Beaglehole (4 vols., 1968)

The Junks & Sampans of the Yangtze by G. R. C. Worcester (1971)

The Last Voyage by Alfred Noyes (1930)

The Machinist’s Bedside Reader by Guy Lautard (1986)

The Scientist Speculates edited by Irving Good; The Restoration of the Earth by Taylor & Humpstone; The Opening of the Eyes by Olaf Stapledon

The Skin Boats of Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska by Stephen R. Braund (1988)

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

The Universal Turing Machine: A Half-Century Survey edited by Rolf Herken (1988)

The Universal Turing Machine: A Half-Century Survey ed. by Rolf Herken

The Seaman’s Friend by Richard Henry Dana (1869)

The Viking Ships: Their Ancestry and Evolution by A.W. Brogger and Haakon Shetelig (1951)

The Voyage of the Vega Round Asia and Europe by A.E. Nordenkiöld (1882)

Theory of Games and Economic Behavior by John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern (1944)

The Tryal of William Penn & William Mead for Causing a Tumult, at the Sessions Held at the Old Bailey in London the 1st, 3d, 4th, and 5th of September 1670 edited and introduced (after the edition of 01719) by Don C. Seitz (01919) with a dedication “to the memory of Thomas Jefferson which needs frequent refreshing.”

Theory of Games and Economic Behavior by John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern

Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata by John von Neumann (edited, posthumously, by Arthur Burks, 1966)

This is the American Earth by Nancy Newell and Ansel Adams (1960)

This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury by Lloyd D. Swenson Jr. and James M. Grimwood (1966)

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)

Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit by Frederica de Laguna (3 vols., 1972)

Waves and Beaches by Willard Bascom (1964)

The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind by H.G. Wells

Weather Prediction by Numerical Process by Lewis F. Richardson (1922)

What Is Life? By Erwin Schrödinger (1945)

Wild Edible and Poisonous Plants of Alaska by Christine A. Heller (1976)

Wilderness by Rockwell Kent (1920)

World Brain by H. G. Wells (1938)

The World of Mathematics edited by James R. Newman (Vol. 1; Vol. 2; Vol. 3; Vol. 4, 1956)

The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind by H.G. Wells (1914)

The World, The Flesh and the Devil by J.D. Bernal (1929)

Worlds of Wonder: Three Tales of Fantasy by Olaf Stapledon (1949)

George Dyson has spoken for Long Now on three occasions. He explored the long-term prospects of mega-scale computing in 02004. The next year, he was joined by both his father, the pioneering physicist Freeman Dyson; and his sister, technologist and Long Now board member Esther Dyson to discuss the difficulty of making accurate long-term predictions. It was the first time all 3 had appeared on stage together. Most recently, in 02013, Dyson spoke on the origins of our digital universe.

Our thanks to George Dyson for this phenomenal, thoughtfully chosen list.

See more Manual lists selected by Kevin Kelly, Brian Eno, Neal Stephenson, Stewart Brand, Violet Blue, and Tim O’Reilly.

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 on March 8, 02017.