33 Books on How to Live and a Russian Nesting Doll

Posted on Wednesday, April 9th, 02014 by Catherine Borgeson
link Categories: Book Lists, Manual for Civilization, The Interval   chat 0 Comments

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 has been reviewing books, writing multiple blog entries and tweeting 50 times a day, all while balancing on a wobble board. The lifelong bibliophile has also written for Wired UK, The New York Times, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow. And now, she has compiled her own reading list of 33 books to add to the 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 Popova’s interests and expertise. She reviewed Brian Eno’s selections 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 her thoughtful reflections when 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 a great deal of insight and context. So rather than listing the books here, you can find Popova’s reading list where it is best written: “33 Books on How to Live: My Reading List for the Long Now Foundation’s Manual for Civilization.”

The Brooklyn-based editor will be speaking with author Caroline Paul at Hattery in San Francisco tomorrow, April 11, 02014. At the event titled “Brain Pickings: An Evening with Maria Popova,” (currently sold out) they will talk about “hunting and gathering on the internet, lessons on creativity, and musings such as the curious minds (and sleep habits) of famous writers past and present.”

  • Interesting article…I especially liked your comparison to Russian nesting doll

  • Sudhir Desai

    I enjoy your site “Brain Pickings” – that is an understatement. It has helped me enormously through difficult and good times. I intend to read through your list of books here. Thanks for sharing.


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