Kevin Kelly’s Selected Books for the Manual for Civilization

Posted on Tuesday, March 18th, 02014 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link Categories: Book Lists, Manual for Civilization, The Interval   chat 0 Comments

Kevin Kelly selecting books for the Manual For Civilization (photo by Catherine Borgeson)

Kevin Kelly selecting books for the Manual For Civilization (photo by Catherine Borgeson)

Today we continue the series of posts featuring the books suggested for the Manual for Civilization with a large list from Long Now Founding Board Member Kevin Kelly. In all we hope to have as many as 3,500 volumes to form a corpus which could sustain or rebuild civilization. To broaden our selection process we’ve asked Long Now members and Interval at Long Now donors to suggest books for the list.

Last week one of our members, Maria Popova, who writes the great blog Brain Pickings, gave us her list of 33 books. We are big fans of her work, and we are honored to include her excellent selections. They join about 1,800 other books suggested so far by Long Now’s members, donors and friends. There is still room for a few thousand more suggestions…

To add your own recommendations of books to include in the Manual for Civilization and vote on which suggested titles should find a place on The Interval’s shelves, just make a donation to support the project. All donors, at any level, can suggest and vote on books. We have raised over $35,000 in the last month, but still need your help to complete this “brickstarter” funding campaign.


For this week’s update Kevin Kelly gave us a tour of his personal library as he made his choices for the Manual for Civilization.  Among his many accomplishments, Kevin has ridden a bike or walked across several continents, has written for the Whole Earth Catalog, was founding editor of Wired, and has himself written several books–most recently the New York Times acclaimed Cool Tools.

Kevin has a knack for finding the most useful books in the world. In fact, he gave us the largest list of suggestions yet: nearly 200 in all. Pulled directly from the shelves of his own library, he gave us books that document practical skills, how to make useful things, and that teach and improve those who read them. Many of these books also appear as tools on his Cool Tools blog (now co-edited by Mark Frauenfelder).

A few choice selections at the top include his own comments on some of the books (you may need to hit the more below to see the full 200).

Practical Bamboos:The 50 Best Plants for Screens, Containers and More:
“I own a lot of bamboo books, but Practical Bamboos is by far the most useful of all. Other bamboo books are more encyclopedic; this one focuses on “only” the 50 most useful bamboo species, spelling out what types are good for fence rows, which are drought resistant, which work well in containers, and how to identify those variants from lookalikes. There’s very specific growing tips for each variety and solid advice about the principles of growing bamboo plants in general.”

Caveman Chemistry: 28 Projects, from the Creation of Fire to the Production of Plastics by Kevin M. Dunn

The Soundscape:
“The sound of modern life has a 60 hertz hum in the background because that’s the frequency of electricity (in North America). Add to that all the other vibrations of technological artifacts and all the sounds made by nature and you get the soundscape of the world. I learned to hear this sonic environment from this master observer. He gave me ears.”

The Backyard Blacksmith by Lorelei Sims

A Museum of Early American Tools:
“A story is told by each tool archived in this paper museum. The tool reveals the amazing things that can be done with your own body’s power, regulated by your eye and mind. Listening to the tool, you can understand how things are made. Not only do these tools run without electricity, they can be made with other hand tools. There’s enough information in these packed drawings by Eric Sloane to enable you to make them yourself, to use to make other things. It’s kind of magical.”

Civilizations: Ten Thousand Years of Ancient History by Jane McIntosh and Clint Twist

Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits:
“For nearly 40 years this guide has introduced boy scouts, 4H-ers, homesteaders, survivalists, and pet keepers to the practicalities of raising rabbits. Now in a new 4th edition, it’s still the best manual for getting started with rabbits for food or show.”

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson

Mirror Worlds by David Gelernter

Systemantics: The Underground Text of Systems Lore by John Gall

Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Stephen Jay Gould

The Past From Above by Georg Gerster

Grand Design: The Earth From Above by Georg Gerster

Infinite Worlds: The Fantastic Visions of Science Fiction Art by Vincent Di Fate

Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth (3rd Edition) by Lynn Margulis and Karlene V. Schwartz

A Synoptic Classification of Living Organisms edited by R.S.K. Barnes

The Ultimate Resource 2 by Julian Lincoln Simon

Biospheres: Metamorphosis of Planet Earth by Dorion Sagan

Biosphere 2: The Human Experiment by John L. Allen

Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader On Hunter-Gatherer Economics and the Environment edited by John Gowdy

Kevin Kelly's personal copy of "Limited Wants, Unlimited Means" (photo by Catherine Borgeson)

Kevin Kelly’s personal copy of “Limited Wants, Unlimited Means” (photo by Catherine Borgeson)

The Complete Works of William R. Corliss

Dowsing: A Journey Beyond Our Five Senses by Hamish Miller

The Stars by H.A. Rey

The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps by Marshall Savage

Powers of Ten: About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe by Phylis Morrison and Phillip Morrison

Mathematics from the Birth of Numbers by Jan Gullberg

The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd Edition) by Thomas S. Kuhn

Re-search: Pranks! & Pranks 2 edited by V. Vale and Andrea Juno

The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey

The Discoverers: Volumes I and II Deluxe Illustrated Set  by Daniel J. Boorstin

Civilizations of the World, Single Volume Edition: The Human Adventure (3rd Edition) by Richard L. Greaves, Robert Zaller, Philip V. Cannistraro and Rhoads Murphey

The Heritage of World Civilizations: Brief Edition, Combined Volume (5th Edition) by Albert M. Craig, William A. Graham, Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment and Frank M. Turner

Atlas of the Year 1000 by John Man

The Cartoon History of the Modern World (& p2, p3) by Larry Gonick

Third Views, Second Sights: A Rephotographic Survey of the American West by Mark Klett, Kyle Bajakian and William L. Fox

Secret Museum of Mankind by David Stiffler

A History of Technology and Invention: Progress Through the Ages, Volume I: The Origins of Tech (and Volume II) by Maurice Daumas

Future Shock by Alvin Toffler

The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years by Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener

Today Then: America’s Best Minds Look 100 Years into the Future on the Occasion of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition compiled by David Walter

Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future by Joseph J. Corn and Brian Horrigan

Future Perfect: Vintage Futuristic Graphics by Jim Heimann

The Wonderful Future that Never Was: Flying cars, mail delivery by parachute and other predictions from the past by Gregory Benford and the Editors of Popular Mechanics

View from the second floor of Kevin Kelly's home library
View from the second floor of Kevin Kelly’s home library (photo by Catherine Borgeson)

People’s Almanac Presents: The Book of Predictions by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace and Irving Wallace

Century’s End: An Orientation Manual Toward the Year 2000 by Hillel Schwartz

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nicholls

The Faber Book of Utopias edited by John Carey

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms by Andrew Robinson

Writing Systems of the World: Alphabets, Syllabaries, Pictograms by Akira Nakanishi

The Traditional Crafts of Persia: Their Development, Technology and Influence on Eastern and Western Civilizations by Hans E. Wulff

The Traditional Bowyer’s Bible, Volume 1 , Volume 2, Volume 3 edited by Jim Hamm

American Flintknappers: Stone Age Art in the Age of Computers by John C. Whittaker

A Short History of Technology: From the Earliest Times to A.D. 1900 by T. K. Derry and Trevor I. Williams

The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways by Robert L. Kelly

The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry

Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences by Edward Tenne

Wheels, Clocks, and Rockets: A History of Technology by Donald Cardwell

The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments: How to set up a home laboratory: Over 200 simple experiments by Robert Brent

Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture by Robert Bruce Thompson

How to Make a Miniature Zoo by Vinson Brown

40 Principles: TRIZ Keys to Technical Innovation, Volume 1 by Genrich Altshuller, Lev Shulyak and Steven Rodman

Manual of Formulas: Recipes, Methods & Secret Processes by Raymond B. Wailes

The Boy Electrician by Alfred Morgan

The Complete Illustrated Guide to Everything Sold in Hardware Stores and Garden Centers (Except the Plants) by Steve Ettlinger

Atlas of Human Anatomy (5thEdition) by Frank H. Netter MD

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classical Guide to World Literature, Revised and Expanded by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major

Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape by Brian Hayes

We Came in Peace for All Mankind: The Untold Story of the Apollo 11 Silicon Disc by Tahir Rahman

Letter Fountain by Joep Pohlen

Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It by Kenneth L. Higbee Ph.D

The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory at Work, at School and at Play by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas

The Lost Art of Towel Origami by Alison Jenkins

The Lore of Still Building by Kathleen Howard

The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford W. Ashley

Country Wisdom & Know-How by the Editors of Storey Publishing’s Country Wisdom Boards

Materials, Structures, and Standards: All the Details Architects Need to Know but can Never Find by Julia McMorrough

Basic Butchering of Livestock & Game by John J. Mettler

The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use by J.N. Liles

Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables by Mike Bubel

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, 3rd Edition by Gail Damerow

Language Acquisition Made Practical: Field Methods for Language Learners by E. Thomas Brewster and Elizabeth S. Brewster

A Reverence for Wood by Eric Sloane

Hawke’s Special Forces Survival Handbook by Mykel Hawke

Understanding Wood: A Craftsman’s Guide to Wood Technology by R. Bruce Hoadley

Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook by David Werner and Jane Maxwell

Where There is No Dentist by Murray Dickson

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

The History of Science and Technology: A Browser’s Guide to the Great Discoveries, Inventions, and the People Who Made Them from the Dawn of Time to Today edited by Bryan Bunch and Alexander Hellemans

The New Way Things Work by David Macaulay

Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-Sections by Richard Platt

Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Explosions: Exploded Views of Astonishing Things by Richard Platt

Mosque by David Macaulay

The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer by Georges Ifrah

Listening to Stone by Dan Snow

The Penguin Companion to Food by Alan Davidson

Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide by Elizabeth Schneider

The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure (2nd Edition) by Joseph Jenkins

Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds for Domestic Supply, Fire and Emergency Use by Art Ludwig

The New Create an Oasis with Greywater: Choosing, Building and Using Greywater Systems: Includes Branched Drains by Art Ludwig

The Septic System Owner’s Manual by Lloyd Kahn

The Barefoot Architect by Johan van Lengen

Primitive Technology: Volumes 1-2 edited by David Wescott

Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species by Mark Elbroch

Sailmaker’s Apprentice by Emiliano Marino

Sailboats You Can Build by Peter Stevenson

Building the Six-Hour Canoe by Richard Butz

The Reef Set: Reef Fish, Reef Creature and Reef Coral (3 Volumes) by Paul Humann and Ned Deloach

Living on an Acre: A Practical Guide to the Self-Reliant Life by U.S. Department. of Agriculture

Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand

The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Wild Edible Plants by Samuel Thayer

Lightly on the Land: The SCA Trail Building And Maintenance Manual (2nd Edition) by Robert C. Birkby

The Book of Bamboo: A Comprehensive Guide to This Remarkable Plant, Its Uses, and Its History by David Farrelly

The Scientific American Book of Projects for the Amateur Scientist by Clair L Stong

The New Horse-Powered Farm: Tools and Systems for the Small-Scale, Sustainable Market Grower by Stephen Leslie

Seeds: The Definitive Guide to Growing, History, and Lore by Peter Loewer

The Merck Manual by Robert S. Porter

On Growth and Form: The Complete Revised Edition by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson

Backyard Sugarin’: A Complete How-To Guide (3rd Edition) by Rink Mann

“How-to” Build This Log Cabin for $3,000 by John McPherson

The Complete Modern Blacksmith by Alexander Weygers

The Compleat Meadmaker : Home Production of Honey Wine From Your First Batch to Award-winning Fruit and Herb Variations by Ken Schramm

The New Complete Guide to Sewing: Step-by-Step Techniques for Making Clothes and Home Accessories Updated Edition with All-New Projects and Simplicity Patterns (Reader’s Digest)

Basketry: A World Guide to Traditional Techniques by Bryan Sentance

Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System by Mary Appelhof

The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World by Sandor Ellix Katz

The Way to Make Wine: How to Craft Superb Table Wines at Home by Sheridan Warrick

Origins of Futuristic Fiction by Paul K. Alkon

Crystal Set Projects: 15 Radio Projects You Can Build by Philip Anderson

Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee

The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volumes 1-11 (Original texts)

Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora

Sky Atlas 2000.0 Companion (most recent edition) by Robert Strong and Roger Sinnott

Mushrooming without Fear: The Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Safe and Delicious Mushrooms by Alexander Schwab

The Art of Computer Programming, Volumes 1-4A by Donald E. Knuth

Many thanks to Kevin Kelly for taking the time and care to recommend these books for our collection.

His list adds to suggestions from Maria, Violet Blue, Stewart Brand, Brian Eno and dozens of Long Now members and supporters. The process of making these lists is ultimately very personal. Choosing the books that best embody, inspire, and inform Civilization is a subjective choice. The thought-process it requires is one of the reasons for initiating this collection. What books would you choose?

You can visit the Manual in person and drink coffee, tea or a cocktail while reading up on rabbit raising and bamboo cultivation at The Interval at Long Now. The Interval opens later this year in San Francisco, it is nearly complete.

Thanks to many of you we have raised over 3/4 of our “brickstarter” goal. So we are asking for your generous support to help us finish construction and complete this project including acquiring books for the Manual for Civilization.

As we approach The Interval opening this Spring, we will continue this series of lists suggested by friends and associates of Long Now for the Manual. You’ll see books recommended by Neal Stephenson, Megan & Rick Prelinger, Danny Hillis, Neil Gaiman, Mark Pauline, and more.

Manual for Civilization Shelf level


  • thenextmeme

    An amazing list. Sharing.

  • Trevor Cooper

    Thank you, Kevin, for pointing us to this expertly curated list of books.

  • TheRev

    Wow, what a beautiful list! Thank you very much.

  • Trent

    The Manual for Civilization is a really cool idea, and Kelly’s choices are fascinating. More communities and organizations should try compiling a list of books like this, to be used in the event of a global catastrophe (e.g. pandemic, asteroid strike, nuclear war) that requires civilization to be rebuilt from the ruins. The CDC uses the zombie apocalypse as a fun way to think about disaster scenarios, and since I’ve been watching ‘The Walking Dead’, I’ve been thinking about all kinds of backup systems for civilization that could be set up. Obviously there are no such thing as zombies and there will never be a zombie outbreak, but everybody likes zombies and the problems people face in fictional zombie scenarios like ‘The Walking Dead’ (society has collapsed, no infrastructure, scarce supplies) are the same as they would face after other apocalyptic events.

    A group called Open Source Ecology is working on a comprehensive set of hardware that could be used to reboot civilization: “The Global Village Construction Set (GVCS) is a modular, DIY, low-cost, high-performance platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts.” If you wanted to set up a civilization backup system, you could create thousands of locations on arable land in rural areas where you could find all 50 machines (preferably more than one of each), along with all their documentation and instructions for use, and a library of books similar to the Manual for Civilization — one that includes a comprehensive set of textbooks in every subject, complete editions of encyclopedias, survival guides, records of history, and classic texts.

    In the library, there should be a focus on providing a step-by-step guide to rebuilding modern technology starting from scratch with stone age tools. I found KK’s pick “Caveman Chemistry” a really interesting selection, since while reading the list I had this purpose in mind. Preserving scientific knowledge would be vital, of course, and there would have to both be very detailed and technical materials like textbooks and scientific papers, as well as books written for a general audience, so anyone can understand them. Ideally, you’d want as many books as possible, maybe 10,000 or more, and a diversity, so that not just science and technology but also art and culture, and other domains of human thought like ethics, politics, history, economics, and philosophy (especially contemporary philosophy, which often gets overlooked!).

    A civilization reboot location could include pre-built shelters and a stock of supplies people can live on while they learn to use the industrial machines and start up a self-sustaining community. In cold areas, there should be enough supplies to last through the winter, since if disaster strikes with snow on the ground there’s no time to start growing crops. A group of survivors like in ‘The Walking Dead’ could find a reboot location, use the supplies, take the machines, take over (preferably directly adjacent) farmers’ fields, and live in the shelters or nearby houses. Once they found the time, they could start reading the books and building up the knowledge to gradually improve their living circumstances, maybe even generate electricity, aided by whatever they can scavenge from the ruins of civilization. With the tools and the knowledge, they could eventually build better tools, and eventually build even better tools from those better tools. With the books, they could educate their children. The knowledge would not be lost; the adults would not have to rely on what they can remember. It could take many generations to rebuild a society that resembled the society before the collapse, but people would not be starting over. They would have a big leg up. They wouldn’t just be surviving, they would have a hope of getting the world back.

    A civilization reboot location would be an expensive project, maybe in the millions of dollars. Creating a civilization backup system would be far from cheap, so we would have to be convinced of its importance and efficacy in order to take on that expense. Right now, it’s probably way more important to spend our money on preventing catastrophes in the first place — on initiatives like the Sentinel Mission, which for the cost of a highway overpass could help us detect asteroids that pose a threat to Earth. But if people someday begin to take serious steps toward preventing global catastrophic risks, then it might be time to also set up a civilization backup system. We hope we never need it, but if the world ever falls apart, then we at least have some shadow of an immune system against losing everything.

  • Modapu

    Please add books about Economics such as acclaimed Austrian Economics by Luwdig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Carl Menger, Henry Hazlitt, Peter Schiff and the Chicago School of Economics Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell.