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Building a Foundational Library for the Long Now
February 7, 2014 5:00 AM   Subscribe

"As we near completion on the construction at the new Long Now space in Fort Mason, we are also building the collection of books that will reside here. We have named this collection The Manual for Civilization, and it will include the roughly 3000 books you would most want to rebuild civilization. ... So… If you were stranded on an island (or small hostile planetoid), what books would YOU want to have with you?" The Manual for Civilization begins. Previously, from 2010, on the project's announcement.
posted by MonkeyToes (107 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'd like to believe in this, but I'm almost certain that several people will put forth things like Ender's Game. Also, including Violet Blue delegitimizes the project.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:22 AM on February 7


3,000 is pretty generous, which gives lots of room for ancient texts. Give them some Prior analytics, some Republic and Timæus. Hell, throw in some Ciccero and Galen too, for good measure. There's plenty of room.
posted by Jimbob at 5:29 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


How about The Knowledge, by Lewis Dartnell?
posted by escabeche at 5:29 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Across the country, thousands of high-school-age versions of myself said, "On the Road!" all at once. All I could think about is how dangerous roads will be in the event that we actually need The Manual for Civilization.
posted by radicalawyer at 5:32 AM on February 7


I don't think I would include so much science fiction or honestly, even any fiction. I suppose there are arguments which could make me change my mind, but cannot think of one. Its an interesting question.
posted by sfts2 at 5:34 AM on February 7


When a third of the texts are "Science Fiction" and "futurism," one's faith in the seriousness of this project is seriously tested. Our current civilization has no particular need for, say, Heinlein; it's difficult to argue that some future civilization must....
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:41 AM on February 7 [20 favorites]


Global Village Construction Set, a set of open-source blueprints for the 50 machines we might need to rebuild civilisation.
posted by katrielalex at 5:41 AM on February 7 [16 favorites]


Neal Stephenson – A selection of useful history books

I'd love to know what history books Stephenson selected. Whatever one may think of his writing, the guy quite obviously does some exceptional historical research.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:42 AM on February 7 [6 favorites]


Looking a little more closely, this is kind of interesting as a time capsule -- more a record of what a specific group of people at a particular point in the past though we would be interested in decades later than what the people of "the future" would actually find interesting. I mean, the Greeks and Romans spent a lot of time copying out books of philosophy, leaving a weeping void where Pliny the Younger's gladiator thrillers were meant to be....
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:47 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


I don't think I would include so much science fiction or honestly, even any fiction. I suppose there are arguments which could make me change my mind, but cannot think of one. Its an interesting question.

I absolutely adore science fiction and I don't think I'd include any either, except such as fell under the "fiction we want to save because it's fiction" category. Science fiction isn't an instruction manual, and when people treat it that way things generally end badly. More, science fiction doesn't have some kind of monopoly on writing about change and encounters across culture. Still more, science fiction is a very poor actual-technology predictor.

I notice that this is what you'd call a very manly project. It's nice to know that as we struggle to recreate civilization, women will be in an adjunct role again, and also nice to see that women always have to be the ones to bring up, like, sexuality and reproduction - because science is for dudes, and those icky yet important bodily processes are best left to the women.

As far as this type of thing goes, I'm with Crake - if you want a science fiction reference.
posted by Frowner at 5:48 AM on February 7 [10 favorites]


but some of the guest contributors include:

Hugh Howey – Donated a special edition set of his Silo Saga


"Indispensable to any civilisation rebuilding effort!"
posted by ersatz at 5:50 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


So… If you were stranded on an island (or small hostile planetoid), what books would YOU want to have with you?

I'd take the same books the Professor guy on Gilligan's Island took with him on the Minnow. He was only planning for a three hour tour and those books lasted for several seasons on a desert island.
posted by three blind mice at 5:52 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


A course in mathematics, from Arithmetic and Number theory through to Category theory. More useful information per unit of printed page than most anything else.

Some basic medical references, focusing on the most common ailments and procedures, (especially prenatal and obstetrics).

A bootstrapping series of books on making tools that make the tools that make the tools...
posted by idiopath at 6:00 AM on February 7 [7 favorites]


Probably need some very simple grammars and dictionaries so our radiation-blighted descendents can learn to read English.
posted by shothotbot at 6:04 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


idiopath's got the right idea. On top of that a big pile of history texts, original sources where possible, some physics and chemistry, and a Rosetta Stone section labelled "Start Here", so you stand a chance of deciphering the rest.
posted by Leon at 6:05 AM on February 7


If they only included enough room for 3000, then the project is fatally flawed already. I personally own more than twice as many books as that, and I'm chiefly interested in collecting well-written sf and 20th-c. poetry.

Also, what -- including the Wool books? Fun diverting weekend read, but not very good in terms of well-written characters, completely-thought-through ideas or quality of prose (fanfic quality writing, in my opinion). What I found most frustrating was that Howey thought through a lot of the issues and tech and politics about 50-60% of the way and then had a failure of imagination making it really work. As with other amateur writing, I kept feeling like I was making excuses for or rewriting the story slightly in my head as I read it, to make it believable.
posted by aught at 6:06 AM on February 7


Really there should be two libraries. One where you put the sci-fi and futurism books, a collection of books for thinking about possible futures. Another one where you put the books that you'd want to reconstruct civilisation.
posted by atrazine at 6:09 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


It's a little weird to judge this project on grounds of practicality, but first contact books for rebuilding civilization? If aliens are showing up here after we fuck things up for good, I assume it will be with all the desire for peaceful contact as anyone else who buys a fixer-upper and finds a bunch of filthy little creatures living inside.
posted by griphus at 6:16 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


20% of the books are on futurism. 15% are science fiction. I love me some science fiction. But dedicating 35% of a collection designed to rebuild humanity to science fiction seems to me to be, well, not entirely in the best interest of humanity. (Yes, I count almost everything I've read on futurism to be science fiction or science fantasy, depending on the author.)

Complete textbooks running from Algebra to the Calculus of Variations (with a side trip over to probability and statistics) for math. Similar material for physics, chemistry, biology and medicine. A collection of the classics from both ancient times to modern classics (yes, this opens up a huge can of worms, but I do think you should include Pynchon in there). You can fit your science fiction in there, in fact I would argue that the greatest sf out there does count as classics. And you could put in some fantasy too. Put in a selection of religious texts, so people can see why we did what we did. If this is truly for making the world better, then they should see the mistakes we made. Might help avoid them again.

On preview, I completely agree with atrazine.
posted by Hactar at 6:17 AM on February 7


Really there should be two libraries.

Yes; really the main "library" designed to survive the 10k span should be a huge, bare-bones decor climate-controlled vault with something like a Library of Congress selection of works (but more global in scope).

Then they can have their trendy Architecture Digest-looking "Long Now Salon" with its 3000 books as well, to rake in ongoing donations from the rubes, which has trendy futurist books that will make the rubes think they're TEDTalk-smart when they drop in to sip free trade organic tea and see how their donation is being spent.
posted by aught at 6:18 AM on February 7 [5 favorites]


Also the book I'd like included is the one that convinces people to skip the inevitable post-apocalyptic bartering economy and establish currency sooner than later.
posted by griphus at 6:19 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


sfts2: “I don't think I would include so much science fiction or honestly, even any fiction. I suppose there are arguments which could make me change my mind, but cannot think of one. ”
I can think of one science fiction book that might be worth including: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:20 AM on February 7 [8 favorites]


Oh, and transcribe everything on to clay tablets. None of the pulped tree rubbish.
posted by Leon at 6:22 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


Two words: Pocket Ref.
posted by Itaxpica at 6:26 AM on February 7 [6 favorites]


In fact, after some thought, I would bring no fiction or philosophy or religion or poetry. Just farming and animal husbandry, mathematics, physics, solar energy and water desalinization, technology, medicine, chemistry, sanitation. Maybe a philosophy overview of some type. But, as said above, its only 3000 which to my mind would barely cover the nuts and bolts of survival.

It does say to rebuild civilization, but what if you didn't want to?
posted by sfts2 at 6:26 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Gracious, this is easy:

1. The Great Books: biased to old dead white men, sure, but a good survey of the liberal arts

2. All the books required for a undergraduate major in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, Computer Science, as well as the enough basic math to allow getting started on the above

3. Medical School Curriculum, Dental School Curriculum, Public Health Curriculum

4. 1st year law school horn books, along with accompanying casebooks for examples

5. Courses in small scale agriculture, animal husbandry, and beekeeping. (See local extension office for master gardener training)

6. The Gingery books, in case there isn't a lathe around. The Engineering curriculum should also include instructional books re: a machine shop.

All of the above is probably <1,000 books, and would, if read, provide a solid foundation for a civilizational reboot
posted by leotrotsky at 6:27 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


ob1quixote "I can think of one science fiction book that might be worth including: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr." Why that one?
posted by sfts2 at 6:27 AM on February 7


Also, the most useful books will likely be ones that convey information that is easy to act on even without a modern civilisation around you. For example, books on chip fabrication wouldn't really go in my top 3000. Not because microprocessors aren't important, but because without the existing supply chain to feed you materials and machinery you wouldn't be able to use it.

Things that would be really useful are knowing about sanitation, how to construct simple sewage treatment systems, water filtration.

I'd want agricultural knowledge like planting schedules, soil chemistry, fertilisers.

Might be good to have a synthesis for a broadly useful pesticide, with the focus on ease of synthesis from readily available materials rather than lack of toxicity or other things.

In fact, "recipes" for a few hundred useful chemicals and medicines, chosen for their ease of synthesis, would be really useful for the first few decades.

A good example would be instructions for making penicillin. It wouldn't be that hard to assemble the materials to produce it in stirred deep fermentation tanks and the extraction process is easy to carry out (but difficult to discover).
posted by atrazine at 6:29 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Who cares, this is all a front anyways, to allow the formation of a Second Galactic Empire.
posted by cacofonie at 6:31 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


In the interests of short term survival so that we all have time to rebuild - or build a new - civilization, I'd include the Foxfire Books, all 12 of them.
posted by JParker at 6:32 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


Is there evidence that the Long Now Foundation is anything other than a vanity project for wealthy pseudo-intellectuals?
posted by euphorb at 6:36 AM on February 7 [6 favorites]


Hold on -you mean we get an island for music, another island for a weblog, still another for comic books, and now one to act as a private library?

I'm starting to like this archipelago.
posted by Smart Dalek at 6:40 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


2. All the books required for a undergraduate major in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, Computer Science, as well as the enough basic math to allow getting started on the above

Yes, but maybe a few books from just before the computer era on advanced numerical methods that don't require computers. Modern textbooks will assume that they're available and they won't be. Log tables and slide rules too.

Ditto on the medical books, you'd want to supplement the modern textbooks with books that are intended for environments without modern medical infrastructure. Schematics for simple anaesthesia machines and a synthetic route for anaesthetics (together with the penicillin) would mean that surgical textbooks would be useful, I don't imagine they'd be much good without those things though.

Is there evidence that the Long Now Foundation is anything other than a vanity project for wealthy pseudo-intellectuals?

Not really but anything that tries to promote long-term thinking is worth something, considering how much we lack that as a civilisation. Even if the Long Now people are a little goofy.
posted by atrazine at 6:42 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


Wow, this is a fascinating thread. I would not have expected such outright hostility to Long Now (Stewart Brand's current project) from the MeFi crowd (I say, speaking as a Long Now member). You learn something new about your favorite online haunts every day.
posted by Inkoate at 6:42 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Inkoate: Long Now might be a decent canary for how MeFi's changed over the years. (The 2010 thread is particularly interesting).
posted by Leon at 6:46 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Wow, this is a fascinating thread. I would not have expected such outright hostility to Long Now (Stewart Brand's current project) from the MeFi crowd (I say, speaking as a Long Now member). You learn something new about your favorite online haunts every day.

For an organization that purports to advocate long term thinking, Long Now is incredibly trendy (Violet Blue?!). It's TED with delusions of grandeur. If they were smart, they'd focus on wooing big donors (like Bezos) and building a huge endowment to fund their (interesting) efforts, instead of trying to sell us fancy gin.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:50 AM on February 7 [5 favorites]


Yeah, and my wife's account posted the 2010 thread, so we're the canaries.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:51 AM on February 7


Wow, this is a fascinating thread. I would not have expected such outright hostility to Long Now (Stewart Brand's current project) from the MeFi crowd (I say, speaking as a Long Now member). You learn something new about your favorite online haunts every day.

I think part of it is, if you actually go read the web site, how fund-raising-oriented the current project is. This Salon thing in San Francisco is really not the archive to rebuild civilization - it's a marketing space to attract trendy weathy folks' money with fancy tea and whiskey, where these donors can sit in Herman Miller chairs in schmancy decor and feel superior to the great unwashed.

As it is now, the project looks like a Disneyland of futurism, not a serious thing. One can only hope they are able to make the transition to a serious project at some point, or else the picture of Brian Eno taking snapshots of some parts for the Long Clock just makes me sad.
posted by aught at 6:53 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Jimbob: “3,000 is pretty generous, which gives lots of room for ancient texts. Give them some Prior analytics, some Republic and Timæus. Hell, throw in some Ciccero and Galen too, for good measure. There's plenty of room.&rdquo:

Well, there are some questions here. Do we want these in Greek? I think so. So include a Greek dictionary, I guess – you might be able to get one-volume editions of the complete works of each of these authors in Greek (they exist in English) and I think it'd be worth it, at the very least for Aristotle and Plato. But I think that just as important as these would be Al-Farabi's The Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, which is, it would seem, written specifically for this purpose:
... The philosophy that answers to this description was handed down to us by the Greeks from Plato and Aristotle only. Both have given us an account of philosophy, but not without giving us an account of the ways to it and of the ways to re-establish it when it becomes confused or extinct.
Hactar: “Complete textbooks running from Algebra to the Calculus of Variations (with a side trip over to probability and statistics) for math. Similar material for physics, chemistry, biology and medicine.”

Sorry, but textbooks seem like a terrifically bad choice. There are good modern books on science and math, and none of them are textbooks. Textbooks are uniformly poorly-written and not designed to impart knowledge to the reader so much as provide a rubric for a specific classroom system which will thankfully be extinct if we find ourselves having to rebuild civilization.
posted by koeselitz at 6:57 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


If we're talking about instruction manuals for a post-apocalyptic America, they couldn't go much wrong with the anthologies published from Foxfire Magazine.

What I'd really want is for someone to rewrite the course of human history as a set of instructional myths, a new bible. Could replace most of the historical and philosophical texts and give people something to argue over.
posted by muddgirl at 7:02 AM on February 7 [7 favorites]


There are a lot of 19th c. books that were basically compendiums of everything that was known (by one particular author, anyway) about a subject, or group of subjects. They're perfect for including in your civilization-rebuilding library.

E.g. the "Library of Useful Knowledge" series is one. Here's their book on Natural Philosophy (aka Physics); it's pretty good. Not light reading, but it packs in the information-per-page pretty densely.

Also, it was published by the "Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge" which sounds like a pretty cool bunch of folks.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:02 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


sfts2: “ob1quixote "I can think of one science fiction book that might be worth including: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr." Why that one?”
Because it's about what happens when a monastic order preserves the technical knowledge of human civilization through the centuries after its downfall.

atrazine: “In fact, "recipes" for a few hundred useful chemicals and medicines, chosen for their ease of synthesis, would be really useful for the first few decades.”
Henley's twentieth century forrmulas, Gardner Hiscox, 1914
posted by ob1quixote at 7:04 AM on February 7


When a third of the texts are "Science Fiction" and "futurism," one's faith in the seriousness of this project is seriously tested.

And I favorite that as someone who has devoted a hell of a lot of his life to science fiction.
posted by Naberius at 7:05 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Sorry, but textbooks seem like a terrifically bad choice. There are good modern books on science and math, and none of them are textbooks. Textbooks are uniformly poorly-written and not designed to impart knowledge to the reader so much as provide a rubric for a specific classroom system which will thankfully be extinct if we find ourselves having to rebuild civilization.

If you can show me a good primer on, say, Abstract Algebra or Differential Equations, that isn't used as a 'textbook' I'll eat my hat.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:07 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


Fuck the classics. Seriously. Old White Dudes have had their way, and if we have to rebuild civilization, well, that's kind of an indicator of how well that went, isn't it? I'm not sure any fiction at all is a good idea. If they have the option of creating their own, why should we try to shape it? Let them construct their own heroes and stories. Maybe without the prejudices built into our narratives, they'll make something better.

Or maybe just poetry; it is open-ended enough that it could serve as aspiration rather than holy text (though that might happen anyway) or recipe. Include as many women poets as men.

No religious texts. Let them come up with their own, or avoid the whole thing. Why should we infect them with that virus? If anything, provide a text cautioning them away from religions as a whole, and how they brought some people comfort but also led to constant war. You could include that in the history section.

Survival guides (food, animal husbandry, metalworking, construction and tools), math (basic to advanced), and medical journals first, including as good as possible a plant-based pharmacology so that you can at least use, say, willow bark for pain. It is interesting to think how you would build medicine-making from scratch. Have they actually consulted people who study and do such things? Those are the ones I'd want making recommendations.

Everything we include should have extra pages and wide margins so they can make notes, additions, and updates as they learn and experiment. The howto books will include instructions on making new books from a variety of sources (clay, rags, hides, paper, papyrus).
posted by emjaybee at 7:12 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


I'd replace the SF and futurism with foreign language dictionaries and side by side translations of... well whatever really. (If you have to have a bunch of SF novels, include foreign translations of them.)

We can't assume that this library is going to be the only source of texts from our civilization that our descendants will be looking at. Consider all the random crap we've managed to find from ancient civilizations, much of which wasn't designed to communicate down the ages to us but just got lucky and survived.

People may well not be speaking, say, Dutch by the time this thing is aimed at, but the future equivalent of a box full of rosetta stones and introductory Linear B texts would have a huge multiplier effect for the usefulness of the Library.
posted by Naberius at 7:13 AM on February 7


No-one has yet to suggest an herbal? Good Lord, are they planning for a future where people no longer have bodies?
posted by benito.strauss at 7:13 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


I'd replace the SF and futurism with foreign language dictionaries and side by side translations of... well whatever really.

Interestingly, this is already the aim of another Long Now project, the Rosetta Project.
posted by Inkoate at 7:16 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


This seems overwhelmingly geeky, with humanities as a sort of lesser cousin you have to bring in because he's kin. Which is fine, okay, but it does put a strain on the definition of civilization.

I mean to say - no art books, no music books? Because I'm thinking we're talking about cultural centers being wiped out in this catastrophe. Goodbye, Metropolitan Museum of Art, au revoir (or not) Louvre. ("Who's this Michelangelo fellow they keep going on about?")

Fuck the classics.

As well say fuck civilization, and be done with this project completely. (Really, order that man a chill pill.)
posted by IndigoJones at 7:17 AM on February 7 [11 favorites]


Manual for Civilization

- Build a scout or two to pop huts

- Beeline to Writing for the Great Library

- Steal workers from City-States then immediately make peace

- Start an early war to win a city in a peace deal

It's not rocket science, people. This basic strategy works all the way up to King or even Emperor, depending on your start position.
posted by Panjandrum at 7:28 AM on February 7 [13 favorites]


I don't understand why they're housing this at Fort Mason, which is located in a place subject to both earthquakes and tsunamis. I'm not certain that Fort Mason is built on fill, but it wouldn't surprise me.

As to what's *in* the collection....well, it made me think of this play, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play that a friend from college directed, in which a group of post-apocalypse survivors are "Gathered around a fire in a woods, these random survivors — like the sequestered Florentines of “The Decameron” — are waiting out a nuclear winter by reimagining a great classic tale of their time. That would be an episode of “The Simpsons,” the “Cape Feare” episode, to be exact, in which young Bart — the son of Homer and Marge — is stalked by the murderous Sideshow Bob."

Humans are born storytellers, so I don't think it's out of place to have a lot of stories in a collection like this, and not just how-to manuals.
posted by rtha at 7:32 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I don't really have a problem with including fiction, but I think limiting it to classics and sci-fi is sadly narrow. Do we have so little pleasure in our own culture that we feel no desire to preserve it? I'd throw in at least a few poetry and short story collections. Maximum cultural impact, minimum space. What about a wind-up turntable and some records?
posted by muddgirl at 7:38 AM on February 7


A course in mathematics, from Arithmetic and Number theory through to Category theory.

Is there such a book? Because I am interested.

Also, to go along with that "The Knowledge" book, someone needs to write "Mistakes of History and How to Not Repeat Them".
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:38 AM on February 7


Maybe throw in a VHS tape of "The Godfather", so that they will know how to make spaghetti sauce for a bunch of guys
posted by thelonius at 7:40 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


No-one has yet to suggest an herbal?

Ah, finally, a practical use for the Voynich MS!
posted by aught at 7:41 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


I don't understand why they're housing this at Fort Mason, which is located in a place subject to both earthquakes and tsunamis.

The Fort Mason site and library, as far as I could tell, seems to be a "salon" for donors to gather to discuss futurism -- not the actual practical archive people are talking about in this thread.

I think this is the fault of the web site's vagueness, not the MeFi commentors, honestly. Right now, the Long Now folks seem far more interested in raising money from VC marks than building the actual Long Library or whatever they end up calling it.
posted by aught at 7:46 AM on February 7


If they were smart, they'd focus on wooing big donors (like Bezos) and building a huge endowment to fund their (interesting) efforts, instead of trying to sell us fancy gin.

Jeff Bezos has actually already been wooed.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 7:54 AM on February 7


Is there evidence that the Long Now Foundation is anything other than a vanity project for wealthy pseudo-intellectuals?

As a thought experiment, it's a neat and fun idea. The Manual is basically a Life Raft Debate in book form, and I like Life Raft Debates. It's intrinsic flaw, however, is the same as when building a list of Great Works™; the choices reflect the biases of what the people curating the list think are important, as well as their own blind-spots.

There's also the confusion (as shown here) over what "rebuilding" a civilization means. If the premise is the complete and utter destruction of "civilization" (whatever that means), then starting from scratch would mean you'd basically want the textbooks for a basic college curriculum mashed up with some higher sciences and vocational skills. If the idea is instead to preserve civilization, that's when you'd be picking things like Canticle for Liebowitz or The Republic.

Those latter choices are still just preserving a particular culture, necessarily excluding all others. Why Plato's The Republic over The Analects of Confucius? Why not the Mahabharata or the Bible? All of them contain guidance and consideration about the proper way of living and ordering of socities. Why pick any of them over a couple textbook on political science and sociology? If the intent is to rebuild a society those would be infinitely more useful. If the intent is to preserve a society, then the question is whose society are we preserving?

I don't see a lot of thought from Long Now on this and their choice of "guest contributors" is fairly indicative of how this is a thought experiment and not a serious project. Sure, Neal Stephenson writes some great fiction grounded in history, but why ask him about "useful" history books (what ever that means) as opposed to say... a historian? What does Violet Blue have to say about sexuality that any other sex blogger doesn't? There's no reason for those people to be involved other than for the Long Nowers to hang out with cool people as part of their cool project.

Like the Life Raft Debates, it's a neat thought experiment, but shouldn't be taken as seriously as these people are taking it.
posted by Panjandrum at 7:58 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I got rid of a bunch of my reference books a few years ago - I realized that I never opened them, because I looked everything up on line.

I made a point, however, of hanging on to any reference books that would help me reboot civilization.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:03 AM on February 7


They should put this book in there. I've gotten a ton of practical use out of it over the decades. More so than just about any other book of its kind. Or is it not hip enough?
posted by Thorzdad at 8:29 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


Was it written by a dead white guy? That'd be an automatic out.
posted by mr. digits at 8:36 AM on February 7


This is something I've done in a small way, not because I have fantasies or illusions about some catastrophic collapse, but because I like knowing about stuff and sometimes it is good to take a book into the field instead of worrying about my iPad's battery.

In my small how-to library, there are things about veterinary surgery and breeding, gardening and crops, paint composition and techniques, fibers and fabrics, as well as sewing techniques. I like having charts of gear ratios on hand and reference Henley's Formulas about once a month or so.

It surprises me that they would include fiction of any kind. We are born to be story tellers. We don't need to know how to envision things, but we do need a functional groundwork of where to start. Without a solid understanding of chemistry, biology, psychology, and mathematics, we are going to be set right back down in the Dark Ages trying to chase away plague with live chickens and turning lead into gold with magic stones.

Regardless of whether it is trying to preserve some specific civilization or culture, in addition to food and medicine basics it should include some basic forestry and wood identification and use information. Wood is easier to source than steel and concrete and rebuilding anything from a fence to a fort is no good if you don't know the difference between cottonwood, ash, locust, or maple.

We just need to leave basics to get people over technological humps; keep them from having to do all of the empirical groundwork technically. They can figure out the rest. We create mythology, religion, and history to suit our needs anyway, even if we have snippets of the truth.

As an aside, I think it may make me a bad person® that the second thing I thought of was trolling the future: An entire library of civilization and culture, all of which is totally incorrect. "Make concrete like the ancients did in 2014 by mixing mud, blood, and sugar!", "remember that cottonwood seems weak, but under high stress it gets stronger; always use for foundations and stress points; it is especially good around water.", or histories of cultural and religious practices that some poor schmuck will try to adopt and adapt to "live authentically, as our forefathers did".

I am almost crying with laughter thinking about how there could be some dude in the middle of a sewage pit in 2415 wearing sequins in his hair, his genitals smeared with goose liver and banana skins, trying to recreate the "solemn and sacred rite of his ancestors".

Private conversations at the dinner table (6 feet off the ground, as it has always been) would involve hushed whispers of "These people were NUTS!"
posted by Tchad at 9:06 AM on February 7 [6 favorites]


I think the Long Now clock itself is a cool idea, but it seems surrounded by a lot of pretentiousness.

rtha, I've wanted to see Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play since I heard about it, I'm hoping _someone_ in the SF Bay area stages it. So many post-apocalyptic pieces are about "me and my awesome SCA friends rule the world", and so few about how culture works and how we make and remake it.
posted by tavella at 9:12 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I made the mistake of paying money to go see a Long Now lecture a few weeks ago. Danny Hillis and Brian Eno took turns stroking each other's ego and then took fawning questions from the audience while photos of the slick Fort Mason lifestyle space were beamed on a screen behind them. From what I can tell the entire enterprise is a combination of a self-important futurist vanity project and a self-congratulatory circle jerk.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 9:19 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


Steely-eyed Missile Man:

I was using "course" as a shorthand for a well curated set of books that are fairly comprehensive, and selected to complement and build on one another. I am certainly not qualified to recommend the set of books, but I think that would be an interesting conversation.
posted by idiopath at 9:34 AM on February 7


A mathematician friend suggests the Bourbaki books as a good starting proposal.
posted by idiopath at 9:38 AM on February 7


This does seem awfully lean on topics that would be of significant interest in the medium term following a civilization collapse. When your cached (or looted) stash of clothes and non-immediately perishable foods and building materials starts to wane, I think you'd want someone to be conversant with efficient techniques for producing thread, for weaving or machine knitting, for sewing on a relatively large scale. Similarly, for preserving food when you can't get more canning lids. For mining from the ground or "mining" from trash.
I think I'd want to include De Re Metallica or equivalent -- there was a lot of institutional understanding about how to use water engines efficiently that we've thrown away because it's cheaper to use a slightly larger stock diesel engine in an inefficient system than it is to design out the inefficiencies.
posted by janell at 9:54 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I notice that this is what you'd call a very manly project.

Weird. "Manly" is exactly the adjective I thought to myself when I saw the breakdown of categories and that they've already recruited two women to suggests topics on sexuality and birth. That plus science fiction as the major type of fiction is kind of hilarious to me. Plus any modern book on agriculture or animal husbandry is going to be mostly useless. I can only guess those suggestions come from people who have never once looked into a modern agricultural textbook. They are great if you want to do things like calculate how many tons of ammonium sulfate you need to disc into your soil per acre of cotton, or how to properly store sperm samples for artificial insemination. In other words: they are modern, technologically advanced, and wholly unuseful to any society that doesn't have the technology. Better to start with pre-industrialized texts and back-to-the-land manuals.

It's also hilarious to me that "futurism" as we see it today is going to be relevant to the post-apocalyptic society of a hundred years from now. "Quaint" is the word that comes to mind.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:18 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


I notice that this is what you'd call a very manly project.

(Obligatory Orson Welles quote.)
posted by IndigoJones at 10:29 AM on February 7


From what I can tell the entire enterprise is a combination of a self-important futurist vanity project and a self-congratulatory circle jerk.

Some of the Long Now stuff is definitely like that, but they also do things like Rick Prelinger's "Lost Landscapes of San Francisco" (archival film footage of San Francisco and the Bay Area, a lot of it never seen before) which are absolutely worthwhile.
posted by asterix at 10:31 AM on February 7


I'm one of the LongNow-member "rubes." I like the clock, and these other projects seem kind of unnecessary, but I don't know of any other futurism-themed NGOs that scratch this itch that I got from too much Kim Stanley Robinson. If nothing else, our species-wide efforts to combat climate change prove the need for longer-term thinking. Metagovernments. Comparative whatever. The kind of knowledge that Neal Stephenson actually did an okay job in Anathem of imagining. When society gets complex enough, it runs out of problems that can be solved in one session of Congress or the United Nations, ever.
posted by radicalawyer at 10:52 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Oh, and transcribe everything on to clay tablets. None of the pulped tree rubbish.

I'd add The Book of Dave by Will Self to that list. Transcribed to metal plates.
posted by ovvl at 10:53 AM on February 7


Was it written by a dead white guy? That'd be an automatic out.

In the long run, we're all dead white guys.

Wait...
posted by Naberius at 11:00 AM on February 7


Not being dead, white or guy, I'd like to suggest the Vedas, all of them. It was Macauley and the Brits who took over 2500 years of science, arithmetic, philosophy, astronomy, medicine et al and titled them "religious books"... if it could be done 3000 years ago, it can be useful when this modern era of ours is gone.
posted by infini at 11:21 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


And the Chinese histories (papermaking, gunpowder, astronomy et al) as well as the best of the Islamic texts.
posted by infini at 11:22 AM on February 7


leotrotsky: “If you can show me a good primer on, say, Abstract Algebra or Differential Equations, that isn't used as a 'textbook' I'll eat my hat.”

Why in hell are you looking for a primer? That would seem like the absolute worst thing to give people if they want to reconstruct how mathematics works and what it actually means. Primers are for introducing a topic fast and bringing people to speed, not imparting knowledge.

Show me a primer that works better than working through Newton's Principia and Leibniz' private letters on differential equations, then Faraday's Researches and Maxwell's Dynamic Theory of the Electric Field, and I will eat my hat. Those books show how differential equations are done, how calculus is used in the world. I didn't understand the meaning and application of differential equations at all – after going through three textbooks – until I read those books.

But perhaps that's cheating. Those books are technically "used as textbooks" many places.
posted by koeselitz at 11:53 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


There should totally be a MetaFilter rival project for this!

I was actually going to post an AskMe looking to compile a list of essential books for post-apocalypse survival and small-scale/local rebuilding of at least basic technology. This was on my mind because it's the one thing I'm missing in my favorite post-apocalypse shows such as Walking Dead: why are the never trying to get into libraries to grab a few useful books during their supply runs? Grabbing a few useful manuals for increasing resources and building/fixing things would be very high on my personal list of priorities.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:57 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


What the Hairy Lobster said...
posted by infini at 12:05 PM on February 7


Aren't the survivors' mathematical needs going to be more like re-learning celestial navigation, rather than getting the Fields Medal competition up and running again?
posted by thelonius at 12:57 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


Seems like the default position is that we need the masterworks and pinnancle thinkers of fields. But I actually think we'd need a fair amount of lay works to keep the populace at least above a medieval level. If we only have stuff that goes over must people's head's, it won't be retained. Even if we had a genius in the survivor population (a la BSG) in a few generations it'll be "whatever, nerd-alert, the volcano god does that".

We'd need some sort of layman's medical guide so we don't go back to thinking illness comes from bad air or witches and some basic science texts so we don't start human sacrifice to end an eclipse.
posted by spaltavian at 12:59 PM on February 7 [5 favorites]


How about a whole shelf of "...for Dummies" books?
posted by rtha at 1:01 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


We'd need some sort of layman's medical guide

Like Where There Is No Doctor?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:11 PM on February 7 [4 favorites]


Bunch of scientifiction, yeah, that'll help. Give 'em copy of The Stars My Destination, that way they can reconstruct Madison Avenue in the 50's, and hmm how about A Scanner Darkly, in case they're in danger of recreating Orange County or Scientology.

Or no, y'all are right, why fiction at all? People can make up their own stories, that's for sure! If Doctor Who fanfiction was good enough for my ancestors, it's good enough for me!

On the other hand, if a future civilization is going to reconstruct itself based on the predilctions of um non-neurotypcal tech billionaires, maybe we should just leave the place to the cockroaches instead.

Real suggestion- a dozen translations of the Tao Te Ching and call it a day. We are doing all this in English, right? Because if we also have to be able to recreate the conditions for producing scholars of classical Chinese to read it in the original, we're going to need a few extra books...
posted by hap_hazard at 1:20 PM on February 7


Real suggestion- a dozen translations of the Tao Te Ching and call it a day. We are doing all this in English, right? Because if we also have to be able to recreate the conditions for producing scholars of classical Chinese to read it in the original, we're going to need a few extra books...

Hey, if they could recover from Qin Shi Huangdi's attempt to bury not just the scholarship but the scholars....
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:57 PM on February 7


Leave nothing and let the future civilization build itself organically, like the last one(s) did.
Any books that are left behind are likely to be misused and misunderstood and used as divisive elements between the followers of one book over others.

3000 books means 3000 potential bibles for 3000 new religions.
posted by rocket88 at 2:08 PM on February 7


I am almost crying with laughter thinking about how there could be some dude in the middle of a sewage pit in 2415 wearing sequins in his hair, his genitals smeared with goose liver and banana skins, trying to recreate the "solemn and sacred rite of his ancestors".

You are probably the correct audience for David Macaulay's "Motel of the Mysteries."
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:18 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


The really interesting thing here to me is the subtext of people who think of civilization in terms of who we are and those of think of civilization in terms of our ability to do things. The first group inclines towards including works of literature, the second towards texts on science and engineering.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 2:44 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I've been thinking about this for a while today, and I agree with both katrielalex here in this thread and Kevin Kelly at the Long Now Foundation. It would be really useful to have a Library of Utility (not what they're actually creating, alas): that is, a library of books that would be the mental equivalent of the Global Village Construction Set.

This would be a collection of books that would take someone from a state of zero knowledge all the way up to the point where they could recreate a fairly sophisticated level of technology, plus a separate Humanities Library that would contain a representative sample of our culture's greatest works of art. Two libraries, in other words. But you'd need the Utility Library to understand the Humanities one.

The Utility Library would begin with two important books:

1. A simple picture book that would start with pictures of human beings doing things like lifting branches, throwing rocks and reading books. That way, someone who opens the book with no previous knowledge (a caveman or completely different species, say) would understand what kind of being wrote the books, and this would establish a visual grammar that makes the rest of the book understandable. (Pictures represent sequences of events, going from left to right in rows down the page, starting at the top left.) Then the picture book would teach someone how to read English at an elementary level, along with basic numeracy, units and measures, and our calendar. It might also include a very basic description of the world (continents and oceans on a planet orbiting the sun) and the concept of past and future.

2. The second book would be an index that would describe the system by which the library is organized. (This would be the "operating system" for the library.) It would have to include a lot of words that aren't in the first book, but make it obvious from context that these are names that can be learned later. There would be a list of all the books (very useful if some are missing!), but more importantly it would teach the reader the system that would allow them to read the books in an understandable sequence.

This sequence would be the key to making the library work. It would be sort of like reinventing the Dewey Decimal system, but in a way that lets the user arrange the books conceptually, rather than arranging them in a physical space. I'm thinking of a system where everything in the Utility Library would be arranged into separate fields of study separated by decimals, and the numbers in each field would tell you what grade level the knowledge is at at.

So a simple math book might be 1.0.0.0.0.0 and an advanced Calculus book would be 10.0.0.0.0.0

A simple physics book would be 5.1.0.0.0.0 (because you need a level 5 math education to understand it), while an advanced one would be 10.10.0.0.0.0 and so on.

A chemistry book might be 4.3.5.0.0.0 and a plumbing manual 3.3.3.0.0.2 In general, each book would be classified by the subjects and comprehension levels you need to know to understand it. Extending this classification system to the Humanities Library would be very difficult, but I think it would be necessary if the reader is to understand any of the references in even basic works of literature. Most of the classifications there would probably involve knowledge of our history and culture.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:51 PM on February 7 [5 favorites]


Oh, fiction and maybe poetry, but no music/instruments? Are future folks all deaf?

Ditto for incising all text/illustrations on low-fire ceramics, and including a "Rosetta Stone" text with all the major languages necessary to read them - English, Hindi, Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, French, Russian, Latin, Greek... are there lingua francas, as it were, for central and south Africa?

Also, stone-tool making (I can make a razor from broken glass or glassy rock in 30 mins; how long and how much human power will it take to rebuild metallurgy?) cookbooks and textile technologies (FY wimmins work). Folks would need all of the above long before machine tools. Musical instrument tech (wood, bone, gut strings ya'all!) and music from all over the world to go with.
posted by Dreidl at 3:30 PM on February 7


atrazine: Also, the most useful books will likely be ones that convey information that is easy to act on even without a modern civilisation around you...

...Things that would be really useful are knowing about sanitation, how to construct simple sewage treatment systems, water filtration.




This is true, but if the library only included practical knowledge I think it would run the risk of not being believed. Imagine a caveman from the fabulous post-holocaust year of 3014 reading about penicillin (mold that makes you healthy) or being told to dig sanitation ditches without telling him about the germ theory of disease first. He might think it was just a bunch of superstitious magic written by silly people in the past.

The reason for teaching knowledge one step at a time, starting from general principles and building up is that every step will reinforce the next as it builds a more and more detailed picture of the world in the reader's mind. If they understand powers of magnitude, the different orders of life and the germ theory of disease, say, then it will be much easier to convince them that it really is worth the effort to dig that privy downstream.

And along the same lines, it's worth including knowledge and blueprints for technologies that they can't use yet, because that also reinforces the world view created by the books. And it gives them something to strive for in the future.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:30 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I'm kind of wondering if it is a wise idea to reveal the sum of human knowledge to whoever eventually ends up discovering the library. In previous times, when two societies of different technological levels met, the results were usually bad for the less technologically advanced society. In other words, compressing thousands of years of human knowledge and having it readily available at the outset may have some unintended consequences or at least be extremely overwhelming. Or to use a science fiction trope, it could violate the prime directive.

Maybe the knowledge should be classified or structured in such a way as to only be accessible when certain pre-requisites are met (like a tech tree). This won't make it avoid every problem, but at least mitigate the chance of the knowledge being misused.

Also, why English? At the present, it is the lingua franca, but it hasn't always been the case. I think it would be better to have the library available in multiple languages, but I myself am unsure of which ones. While it would be easier to go with languages with the most readers, this would date the library as more time passed and languages continue to change. I think this is an area that the experts (anthropologists, linguists, historians) would probably be able to best determine what languages will most likely be spoken/read by the kind of people that would discover the library in the future.
posted by FJT at 3:31 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I don't think it matters what languages are included - they'll all date the library eventually. Just include or supplement with updated Rosetta stones.
posted by muddgirl at 3:37 PM on February 7


And Barbara Tuchman's "The March Of Folly", in Rosetta multi-language format, as the first thing to see when accessing the collection.

Because she tries to remind us how civilization will end from the actions of people ignoring the obvious, not by extraordinary events or technologies.
posted by Dreidl at 3:38 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Oh, and you could certainly have music in the library in written score form, along with instructions on how to build and play instruments, pictures of people playing, the history of music, and so on.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:51 PM on February 7


When a third of the texts are "Science Fiction" and "futurism," one's faith in the seriousness of this project is seriously tested

I dunno. Wheaton's law seems pretty useful as a foundational premise.

I'd think something along the lines of the "passive institutional controls" from the WIPP project, except in reverse, should surround the thing.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:42 PM on February 7


Any books that are left behind are likely to be misused

Good point, you've changed my mind about all this. Now I think that all they'll need is 3000 assorted issues of Silver-age Marvel comics.

Think how motivated they will be, to recreate mid-20th-century SCIENCE!, so they can get their radioactive spider-bites and Thing-skins and whatnot.

Hell, the ads alone will give them plenty to strive for. Seamonkeys! Hypnocoins! X-Ray specs! How amazing must Hostess Fruit Pies have been, to be endorsed by the Hulk himself!
posted by hap_hazard at 4:48 PM on February 7 [5 favorites]


English works as well as any other language. Just include some picture books and dictionaries to get people up to speed. Maybe have some more advanced picture books that teach how to make immediately useful things like longbows, glass or ice to motivate further study of the library, but it will take significant scholarly work for any library like this to be used and learning English will just become the first step.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:21 PM on February 7


Man, I really despise the useless, misleading, and degrading word "humanities."
posted by koeselitz at 5:35 PM on February 7


What would be a better term?
posted by Kevin Street at 6:13 PM on February 7


English works as well as any other language.

But again, why English? There isn't any idea of what language is used in the future, and I feel choosing only English is very ethnocentric.
posted by FJT at 6:45 PM on February 7


I don't think it is.
We are not limiting the nominations to western civilization, or even the English language
posted by muddgirl at 6:59 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


500 year setback when they read Asimov first then start hunting for Psychohistory 101.
posted by benzenedream at 10:38 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Also the book I'd like included is the one that convinces people to skip the inevitable post-apocalyptic bartering economy and establish currency sooner than later.

I'd be with you, but "Who runs Currencytown?" just doesn't have the same ring to it at all.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:07 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]


I don't see a lot of thought from Long Now on this and their choice of "guest contributors" is fairly indicative of how this is a thought experiment and not a serious project.

That's slightly unfair. Not entirely untrue, but it ignores the history of the Long Now foundation and that tradition of Californian technohippism it comes from. Of course Sterling and Stephenson would be involved; they're people who've been shaping this particular cluster of "futurists" for decades.

And we're lucky to have them; thirty years ago it might've been Niven and Pournelle and the rest of the Destinies crowd latching on to Brandt to worry about the post-WWIII rebuild of America.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:47 AM on February 8


Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Ethics and Metaphysics and Categories, Descartes' Meditations, Hume's Treatise, Kant's First Critique and Groundwork, Locke's Essay and Second Treatise, Russell's Problems of Philosophy, Frege's Foundations of Arithemetic, Russell&Whitehead Principia, Godel's incompleteness proofs.

A start in philosophy.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 3:20 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]


thirty years ago it might've been Niven and Pournelle and the rest of the Destinies crowd latching on to Brandt to worry about the post-WWIII rebuild of America.

The ability of Jerry Pournelle to fuck up anything, down to and including a ham sandwich, is not to be underestimated, but thirty years ago he and Niven were preoccupied with SDI. Why plan for post-WWIII when they thought that they could win it by building Skynet?
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:34 AM on February 10


The end is not near: Thanks to science, most of us accept the deep past – so why are our imagined futures so shallow?
posted by homunculus at 12:46 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


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