The Manual for Civilization Begins

Posted on Thursday, February 6th, 02014 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link Categories: Long Now salon (Interval), Manual for Civilization, The Interval   chat 0 Comments


As we near completion of The Interval at Long Now, our new venue in San Francisco, we are also building a collection of books that will reside here.  We have named this collection the Manual for Civilization, and it will include the roughly 3500 books most essential to sustain or rebuild civilization. Using this as an curatorial principle is helping us assemble a very interesting collection of books.

So… If you were stranded on an island (or small hostile planetoid), what books would YOU want to have with you?  We began asking this question to the Long Now Board and staff, as well as our Interval donors and the Long Now membership.

We have also asked a number of others with great book collections and specific expertise.

Author Neal Stephenson selecting books for the Manual For Civilization

This process has just begun, and we will detail these submissions and trips to amazing libraries more in the future, but some of the guest contributors now include:

Kevin Kelly selecting books for the Manual For Civilization

What are these books?  In order to make sure we don’t just get a bunch of books on how to make fire, we spread the collection across four basic categories to help guide the collection process:

  • Cultural Canon (Great Books, Shakespeare, Plato, etc.)
  • Mechanics of Civilization (Technical knowledge, how to build and understand things)
  • Rigorous Science Fiction (Science fiction that tells a useful story about a potential future)
  • Long-term Thinking, Futurism, and relevant history (Books on how to think about the future that may include surveys of the past)

We will be publishing the list in the coming months once we have the suggestions narrowed down by our members and supporters.  We have reached about 1400 nominations but will need four to five thousand to have enough to winnow it down to the very best 3000 books.  We are not limiting the nominations to western civilization, or even the English language, as one piece of the collection will be the Rosetta Disk itself.

But now that we have a good start on the collection, we need to begin editing the list down.  We are using an open source voting system suggested by Heath Rezabek called “All Our Ideas” which has turned out to be a great way to sort lists like this.  The system allows our supporters to choose between just two books in a given category, or suggest a new book.  This way you don’t have to rank a huge list of books, rather just make decisions between book A or book B and these decisions are aggregated.  We are just now sending this system out to our staff and supporters and it is yielding great results.  You can see an example of what a voting page looks like below.

Once The Interval is open we hope to have events where people can argue a new book in OR out of the collection.  It will be a living collection.  The Internet Archive has generously agreed to serve as the digital backup repository of the collection so that anyone with internet access can “check out” the books, or use the list to help create their version of the archive.

So how can you contribute and share your opinion?  The first contributors are Long Now members and Interval supporters. If you have a particular expertise or suggested resource, we welcome you to make book recommendations in the comments of this post.  There will be a lengthy process of collecting the actual books for our shelves. We had a fair number of titles in the Long Now library to begin with, but we have fewer than 15% of the books suggested to date.  We are working with in partnership with  Borderlands Books and Friends of the San Francisco Public Library to help fill in the collection. But donations of books and funds will also be essential as some titles on the list are quite rare.  Please do leave a comment on this post if you are interested in helping to supply books.

This project was originally conceived in a meeting hosted at the Internet Archive by Brewster Kahle with Kevin Kelly, Rick and Megan Prelinger and Alexander Rose.  Past references and writing on this can be found in this Manual for Civilization blog article by Alexander Rose as well in the Library of Utility article by Kevin Kelly.  Data wrangling is being ably handled by Kurt Bollacker and Catherine Borgeson with web help by Ben Keating, and the process has also been helped along by Intern Heath Rezabek.

In addition had several volunteers helping with the project that include:

Alison Hunter
Ashley Hennefer
Bryan Campen
Casey Cripe
Danielle Engelman
David Kelley
Elizabeth DeRieux
Nick Gottuso
James Alexander
Jennifer Woodfield
John Kausch
Kurt Bollacker
Ned McFarland
Michael McElligott
Michael Pujals
Alastair Mcpherson
Tim Reynolds
Whitney Deatherage
Mike Johnson


  • James Tek

    I would love to be kept in the loop on this project as it develops. And if it hasn’t already been recommended, I nominate “The Moral Animal” by Robert Wright for its valuable insight into evolutionary psychology as a basis for understanding human compulsions–individually AND communally.

  • Hund

    The Evolution of Cooperation by Axelrod
    On Aggression by Lorenz
    Universal Principles of Design by Lidwell, Holden, Butler
    The Worldly Philosophers by Heilbroner

  • Eduardo Blasina

    The Selfish gene by Richard Dawkins, to understand the biological basis of our behaviour, and the historoy of Occidental Philosophy by Bertrand Russell because that is perennial foundation for long term thinking.

  • Simon

    While this is a laudable and interesting addition to the Long Now canon I hope you are careful to consult long and wide, especially for the cultural strand, to ensure that it isn’t Anglocentric. I’m also a little dubious how voting by a populous that will inevitably skew rich, English-speaking, white and male will be able to make those sorts of value judgements between books. (Speaking as somebody who is white, male and by global standards rich I certainly know that any cultural canon *I* tried to pick would be unfortunately narrow in breadth.)

  • Tee

    Blank Manuscript Paper
    Blank Sheet Music
    The Complete Works of Shakespeare
    The History of Philosophy, Copleston (or other Phil Hx)
    The Russia House, le Carre
    A Soldier of the Great War, Helprin
    The Foxfire Series, Wigginton

  • Tejah Balantrapu

    I would add ‘Budugu’, a humorous book in Telugu to the cultural canon

  • David

    The Crying of Lot 49.

  • Z

    The Western Cannon.

  • Paul Golding

    A Pattern Language by Chris Alexander

  • Don Mitchell

    Rise of the New Physics, A. D’Abro;
    The Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics, Max Jammer;
    Quantum Mechanics, Messiah;
    Dynamics: The Geometry of Behavior, Ralph Abraham;
    What is Mathematics, Richard Courant;
    Classical Mechanics, Goldstein;
    Classical Electrodynamics, Jackson;
    Introduction to Algorithms, Cormen;
    Transaction Processing, Jim Gray;
    Animal Physiology, Schmidt-Nielsen;
    The Art of Electronics, Horowitz & Hill;
    Family Medical Guide, The American Medical Association;
    Critical Tables, National Research Council of the USA;

  • Michael Dewitt

    Charles Eistenstein’s “The Ascent of Humanity”

    The Ultimate Guide to Permaculture

  • Onix

    Huxley’s, “A Brave New World”

  • sortfn

    Kama Sutra
    Devil’s Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce
    Call of Cthulhu, by HP Lovecraft

  • Ferrell Mercer

    A far from exhaustive list of suggestions to consider:
    – Durant’s Story of Civilization (especially Vol 1)
    – Work by Gary Snyder (if only one, perhaps The Gary Snyder Reader or Practice of the Wild).
    – Tao Te Ching (my favorite translation is the one by Ursula le Guin …debating the “best” one would be a whole thread in itself)
    – Godel’s Proof by Nagel and Newman

  • Michael Paul

    A set of books designed to teach someone, from infant through to adult, exactly how to read. And have them in several different languages, one set at the head of each language in the library.

  • Jordan Wilson

    Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. It re-difines the history of human civilization and emotional development, and connects our development of both to our ecological impact. A must read.

  • Jim Straker

    The Last Whole Earth Catalogue from Stewart Brand
    …. for inspiration.

  • Randall Lusson

    The Popol Vuh
    The Palm Tree at the End of the Mind, collection of Wallace Stevens poems.

  • John Edds

    The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

    Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation

    The Universal Traveler: A Soft-Systems Guide to: Creativity, Problem-Solving, and the Process of Reaching Goals

    The Ashley Book of Knots

  • Rafael

    Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, Plato’s Republic, Bacon’s New Organon,

  • Heath Rezabek

    Simon – Speaking only as an Intern, I feel I can say that this has been a topic of discussion among the project team and list from the start. It seems certain that what we’ll have initially will very much be a reflection of the Long Now community. And initially, this is appropriate, as the collection will be showcased at the new salon, a home base for that community.

    Over time, as this collection is refined and should larger collections grow from this seed, it may make sense to expand our subject areas and aim for localized (hm!) curation lists. With crowd curation, this actually wouldn’t be all that hard to do.

    In the meantime, there’s also a submission form linked on the actual voting system, and we’re hopeful that Long Now members mindful of this issue will bring to the table as diverse and widespread a range of influences as they’re able.

  • Jason Winn

    Norberg-Schulz Christian, Genius Loci
    Norberg-Schulz Christian, Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture
    Critchlow Keith Barry, Sacred Geometery
    Lévi-Strauss Claude, multiple texts
    Jackson John Brinckerhoff, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape
    Volk Tyler, Mettapatterns
    Abram David, Spell of the Sensuous, the
    Bachelard Gaston, Poetics of Reverie
    Wescheler Lawrence, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees
    Colonna Francesco, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
    Jones Lindsay, Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Interpretation, Comparison

  • Patrick Tucker

    The Foxfire books.

  • Tigermonkey

    How do we take part Xander? I suggest “Entering Space – Creating a Spacefaring Civilization” By Robert Zubrin

  • kitsy

    Engineering in Emergencies : A
    Practical Guide for Relief Workers [Paperback]

    Jan Davis (Editor), Robert
    Lambert (Editor)

  • Dan

    The last printed Encyclopedia Britannica?

  • jimeikner

    The Practical Cogitator

  • Passerby

    Helena Petrova Blavatsky

  • Gordon Wells

    The link for Salon supporters seems broken?

    But maybe “Fortunes in Formulas” would be fitting?

  • This is clearly a meritocratic process, as civilization itself isn’t just created through blind chance. You are basically proposing affirmative action for the process of figuring out how to maintain and preserve a civilization?

  • DrDischord

    Texts on agriculture, specifically animal breeding, and texts on plant genetics and irrigation.
    To my mind, this library should be one that could jumpstart a human civilization founded by the passengers of a generational starship.

  • Scott Banister

    Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh
    The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge

  • Yosarian2

    In building a new civilization, I would think that a small collection of basic textbooks on physics, math, chemistry, and biology would be absolutely invaluable. Getting a head-start in a scientific understanding of the universe would be absolutely vital in re-building a technological civilization without reverting into superstition or myth of a type that would be harmful to the civilization in the longer term.

  • Spencer Hubbard

    My name is Spencer Hubbard, and a book i think should be included is David Levithan’s book:”Two Boys Kissing”. it is an excellent book, that even though it is a about young gay teens (something not everyone feels comfortable with) it has an amazing writing style that i have never seen before or since. and it remains today to be the only book that consistently brings me to tears throughout the whole novel.

  • Spencer Hubbard

    also it is filled with great witty/poetic pieces of wisdom

  • Charmaine Taylor

    As a retired bookseller I am able to donate books, mostly new remaining in stock, in the niche of “alternative house building, green building from Cob to Papercrete. I also have hard to find books on lime plaster and use of lime”: (many are rare and technical resource books that need to be saved for future) There are out of print books on How To, and Formularies to create anything basic materials. I am looking for the right place to donate these titles.

  • Harrison Gross

    I suggest the following texts on mathematics:

    Abstract Algebra by Dummit and Foot
    Principles of Mathematical Analysis by Rudin
    Topology by Munkres
    The History of Mathematics: An Introduction by David Burton
    Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers by Jan Gullberg

    I also suggest
    Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay

  • Michael L.

    Is it possible that the human problem is not technological essentially, but living from a divisive consciousness? What would you add to the canon to reflect that possibility? Otherwise, isn’t the risk teaching the future how to destroy itself, again?

  • Terry

    Candy by Terry Southern

  • Carol Sill

    What about art books?

  • Reinaldo

    Hi, I find this topic really interesting. I would include:

    History of Science and the Chronology of Discovery: Isaac Asimov

    The Selfish Gene: Richard Dwakings

    The Road to Serfdom: Frederik Von Hayek

    The Wealth of Nations: Adam Smith

    The General Theory of Employement , Interest and Money: Keynes

    As for Science Fiction:

    Huxley’s Brave New World

    Orwells’ 1984

  • eeby

    You ask this rhetorically, as though it’s an obviously ridiculous question:

    “You are basically proposing affirmative action for the process of figuring out how to maintain and preserve a civilization?”

    I think a more diverse approach will help make any civilization that succeeds or evolves from ours a better one than we have. Unexamined, then reflexively defended, “expert” selection biases have cramped our current civilization and factored in its frequent resort to forced and/or institutionalized cruelty to individual human beings. Our collective dignity, which must underlie any claim this project might make to be a worthy source of knowledge maintenance and preservation, surely would be compromised by a selection approach that favored “ideas that work” without regard to the contexts in which they succeeded as ideas or projects. Neither ideas nor the enterprises that make them visible exist in a vacuum – they take form and enter history in their context. Wars, orphanages, railroads, farms, factories, kitchens, mines, brothels – some of these have showcased “the best” of some -ology or -ism.

    I look forward to this effort’s careful, respectful, critical, creative curation, undiluted by fears or the buzzwords that stir them up.

  • J L

    The Bible
    The Art of Memory by Francis Yates
    Augustine’s Confessions
    Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
    Their Eyes Were Watching God
    Out of Africa
    Silence by Shusaku Endo
    Akutagawa’s Short Stories
    The Origins of Totalitarianism
    The Journalist and the Murderer

  • R

    Thanks for putting this together. It’s our intellectual/cultural/technological seed bank. Other countries and cultures should do the same to build in redundancy and compensate for bias.

  • Kathy Rivers

    Heath, it’s good to hear the Long Now community is mindful of these issues, but that’s not really the same as actually understanding them and including multiple perspectives (and I’m guessing some of the discussion has included the perspective similar to Steve P’s, where the represented voices actually believe the “best” information is appropriately Anglocentric and male). Although I applaud the project’s concept, it seems unlikely that being mindful of the need for multiple perspectives will help to including them until the group itself, and the curators they consult, becomes a little less white, privileged and male and a little more representative of the actual world’s cultures. The founding member’s list of suggested titles is an inauspicious beginning.

  • Mahendra K Shukla

    Please add ARTHSHASTRA by Kotilya which was the fundamental of Political Economy of governance along with CHANAKYA NITI.

  • FreeYourMindinSC

    Recommended nonfiction (no particular order):

    Peter Watson, IDEAS: A History of Thought and Invention from Fire to Freud.
    Donella H. Meadows, THINKING IN SYSTEMS
    Colin Wilson, THE OUTSIDER
    William Strauss & Neil Howe, THE FOURTH TURNING
    Francis Fukuyama, THE END OF HISTORY and the LAST MAN
    Alvin Plantinga, GOD and OTHER MINDS
    Paul Craig Roberts, HOW THE ECONOMY WAS LOST
    Forrest Wooldridge, HOW TO LIVE A LIFE OF ADVENTURE
    Elizabeth Lipski, DIGESTIVE WELLNESS
    Mel Bartholomew, SQUARE FOOD GARDENING (2nd Ed)

    Recommended science fiction (no particular order):
    Arthur C. Clarke, CHILDHOOD’S END
    Frank Herbert, DUNE
    Joe Haldeman, THE FOREVER WAR
    James P. Hogan, CODE OF THE LIFE MAKER
    Robert L. Forward, DRAGON’S EGG
    John Shirley, CRAWLERS (warning: vivid & horrifyingly graphic tale of nanotech-out-of-control)

    Recommended mainstream fiction:
    Nicholas Sparks, THE NOTEBOOK

  • Leroy Tophet

    Practical Mysticism; Evelyn UnderHill
    The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Edward Gibbon
    The Art of Computer Programming; Donald Knuth
    Oxford English Dictionary

  • Leroy Tophet

    Why Nations Go To War; John G. Stoessinger

  • RoyMix

    Groundwater and Wells (Driscoll (2nd edition))
    Applied Hydrogeology (Fetter)
    Geology of Ore Deposits
    SME Mining Engineering Handbook

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