Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.
April 20, 2010 12:32 PM   Subscribe

In 1968 Stewart Brand launched an innovative publication called The Whole Earth Catalog. It was groundbreaking, enlightening, and spawned a group of later publications.The collection of that work provided on this site is not complete — and probably never will be — but it is a gift to readers who loved the CATALOG and those who are discovering it for the first time.

If you're not familiar with the Whole Earth Catalog, read the wikipedia entry for some background, and heed the words of Steve Jobs (of whom you may have heard) who called it "Google in paperback form."
posted by Nothing... and like it (41 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Nothing... and like it at 12:34 PM on April 20, 2010

The Whole Earth Catalog also at least partly inspired one of Brand's other projects, The WELL, a very early and influential Internet discussion forum (amongst other things).
posted by kmz at 12:37 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I saw this first maybe half a year ago and was excited because, hey, the Whole Earth Catalog changed my life, back when I was in high school. To be able to point to everybody at last and say, hey, HERE IS SOMETHING THAT CHANGED MY LIFE.

But... that Flash-based flippy-page interface is a piece of shit. It's overbaked, difficult to navigate, impossible to read. It's a piece of shit. It makes me want to cry - all this revolutionary stuff, wrapped in an inaccessible piece of shit. I can point you at YouTube for the greatest music that The Minutemen had to offer, but I still can't link to the article that introduced me to Buckminster Fuller, thanks to that diddly piece of shit.

The Whole Earth catalogs, magazines, and spinoffs don't deserve this. Fuck whoever thought it was a good idea to do this.
posted by ardgedee at 12:42 PM on April 20, 2010 [8 favorites]

As far as I know, my mom still has the original 1968 issue. I'm going to have to look for it next time I go visit. I remember being fascinated, yet confused by all the stuff in it.
posted by MexicanYenta at 12:46 PM on April 20, 2010

The Flash interface does suck, but it's not the only way in.

Articles in HTML links.
posted by cgc373 at 12:46 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Whole Earth Catalog was my window as a kid onto a really interesting universe, unlike the one I was living in. I was drawn to their view and this naturally led to thinking like a hacker (in the best sense of the word). I met Stewart a few years ago and got a chance to thank him. It's a small world!

For those of you interested in some of the offshoots of this work, I recommend Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools, which continues the access to tools ethos of the Catalog, and the Long Now seminars in San Francisco (also available as podcasts and videos) continues with the Whole Earth Catalog's sustainable, long-term view.
posted by zippy at 12:47 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

unlike the one I was living in.
That is, suburbia in a conservative part of the country.

posted by zippy at 12:48 PM on April 20, 2010

"2025, If..." and other Fuller essays linked at the bottom of the page.
posted by cgc373 at 12:48 PM on April 20, 2010

> Articles in HTML links.

Appreciated, but that's only a fraction of the thousands of entries they've got.
posted by ardgedee at 12:54 PM on April 20, 2010

A slight derail but Stewart Brand has also written what I feel is one of the best books on architecture, ever: How Buildings Learn
posted by werkzeuger at 12:57 PM on April 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

oh thank you so very much for this timely and wonderful post.

I just wish I could find that Purpose paragraph in the inside front cover in accessible text.

I'm trying to do something inspired by Maker Faire Africa (which deserves its own post) for the ASEAN and this came up on the blue even I am in the midst of developing and writing up the concept.

those words in the Purpose capture so much of what the aims are
posted by infini at 1:08 PM on April 20, 2010

Here you go, infini.
posted by Nothing... and like it at 1:16 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Too young for the Whole Earth Catalog, but the Whole Mirth Catalog was one of the most checked-out books in my elementary school library.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:22 PM on April 20, 2010

The Whole Earth Catalogs were great, I still have "Next" and "Millennium Edition" but wow that's some sucky flash interface. I tried to dig around a little in "Next" but the interface is just too painful to deal with.
posted by octothorpe at 1:25 PM on April 20, 2010

I saw the WEC when I was doing my national service. We (Norway) had a quite big conscript army in those days, and all kinds of people suddenly found themselves living together. One of my platoon buddies had brought the WEC, and it really blew my mind.
posted by Harald74 at 1:28 PM on April 20, 2010

thank you Nothing... and like it!

ooo look at this snippet:

By participating in history instead of standing by to watch we shall at least be able to enjoy the present. The cult of scientific detachment and the orderly fragmented way of living that goes with it, serve only to isolate the human individual from his environment and from his neighbors, they reduce him to a lonely, impotent and terrified observer of a runaway world. A more positive attitude to change will not mean that you will always feel secure; it will just give you a sense of purpose. You should read your Homer. Gods who manipulate the course of destiny are no more likely to achieve their private ambitions than are men who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; but gods have much more fun!

posted by infini at 1:29 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

The problem with the Whole Earth Catalog was that, nearly every one of the probably hundreds of times that I looked at it, I lost track of what I was supposed to be doing, drawn away by the numberless other really cool things in it.
I remember reading Gurney Norman's "Divine Right's Trip" in the WEC, a little piece of it in the corner of each page.
posted by crazylegs at 1:33 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

The first two Whole Earth Catalogs (inherited from my parents) take pride of place in my bookcase. 'Pride of place' by necessity as they're so damn big I had to size the shelf extra tall just to fit them. I've got some great old issues of CoEvolution Quarterly too.
posted by Flashman at 1:34 PM on April 20, 2010

My dad was inspired by the WEC to build a a house comprised of a pair of conjoined geodesic domes, I remember him opening the catalog and showing me a a drawing in about '73. It took 1 keg of beer and about 15 friends less than a day to frame the exterior from a kit.
posted by vapidave at 1:40 PM on April 20, 2010

Previously, How Buildings Learn BBC series
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:41 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Listening to all your stories about WEC makes me wonder if I might find it in a used bookstore of some sort? I did come across the original paperback of Vance Packard's books once for about $2.50 each
posted by infini at 1:43 PM on April 20, 2010

Missing: The Kids Future Whole Earth Catalog, which I still hopefully have in storage somewhere.
posted by loquacious at 1:44 PM on April 20, 2010

from cgc373's link which I just noticed, seeing as how we're only 15 years away, what has changed in the world ?

As of the closing of 1974, muscle and power are in complete dominance over world affairs. The world pays two pugilists three million dollars to pummel one anothers' brain boxes for a dozen minutes in front of the T.V. cameras. The winner is officially adulated by the United States Congress. He's a good human being so that's great but no T.V. shows are celebrating far greater metaphysical battle heros and heroines in their silent commitment to love, truth and everyday self sacrifice for others.

For the last two decades the world powers have been spending 200 billion annually for armaments and only negligible amounts to assuage poverty. The most powerfully armed control the world's wealth. Power and muscle clearly continue in the world's saddle.

Whether human beings will be on our planet in the 21st century depends on whether mind has reversed this condition and has come into complete control over muscle and physical power in general and as a consequence of which the world will at last be operational by humans for all humans.

posted by infini at 1:48 PM on April 20, 2010

I remember being 12 and being fascinated by the WEC, displayed in what was then the only bookstore in my hometown, but my parents wouldn't let me buy it. "There's nothing in there that would interest you," I was told.
posted by briank at 2:04 PM on April 20, 2010

the edition of the whole earth catalog that i came across on a small caribbean island whilst on vso had a review of christopher alexander's book "A Pattern Language" that began "This is the most important book in the catalog" and it was the only resource that had a whole page devoted to it

i began building using the ethos of that catalog. it changed my life
posted by paradise at 2:07 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I remember going to the library to read these when I was in grade school. Cool stuff, thanks.
posted by substrate at 2:08 PM on April 20, 2010

I remember reading my mother's issues when I was a kid. I might not have understood the essays but the products where cool. I wish we could have kept them but my dad was in the Navy and we had to always get rid of stuff because of the moving.
posted by govtdrone at 3:00 PM on April 20, 2010

I recently took out 'The Long Now' from the library, and Stewart Brand had written a note in the book saying "Please bring this back, Thanks!". Which made it all the more exciting to have on my shelf for a little while.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 3:24 PM on April 20, 2010

The Whole Earth Catalog was good. It was eclipsed in the genre and has never been surpassed by Amok Journal Sensurround Edition.

There is a paradigm shift, and then there is a paradigm blast off into orbit.
posted by bukvich at 4:29 PM on April 20, 2010

I used to read this at my public library, and really miss it. It was a window on and a gateway to a whole world I would otherwise not have encountered in suburbia. Did it just peter out?

Also there used to be a lot of article links up at, but they're all blocked or gone now.
posted by ZeusHumms at 4:30 PM on April 20, 2010

i grew up with the whole earth catalog, and co-evolution quarterly... my parents got every issue; it was a little bit of a big deal when one would arrive in the mail. seeing those covers triggers really strong memories of another time and place! too bad their site is so hard to look at. but, cool post!
posted by lapolla at 5:04 PM on April 20, 2010

We had the Last Whole Earth Catalog in my house growing up, stored next to an also-large-format inexpensive reprint of Diderot's L'Encyclopedie. I would flip through them both at the same time.

Eventually I read every word in the the Last book, reading it carefully, having concluded (due to the title) that it, like L'Encyclopedie represented a good-faith effort to encapsulate the most important knowledge of an entire, now dead, civilization, and that a careful study of it, as of L'Encyclopedie would enable one to reconstruct the Good Society in the Reaganite post-nuclear ash.

One thing I did not care for was the emphasis on sources for materials that were businesses. Right next to these oversize books was that also-best-selling 1970s classic, the 1897 Sears Catalog. That catalog had many interesting things very reasonably priced,none of which you could build from the information on the page. It had this in common with the Last.

L'Encyclopedie assumed you needed to be taught how to build the items and objects it cataloged, and even with the at-first mysterious French text, it was clearly intended to teach. the Last also taught, but it taught exclusively in terms of culture, and for all its' rhetoric about the new world of the counterculture, the heart of the message was buy stuff. Buy stuff from mayfly-lived po-box hippy flight-of-fancy businesses, but, yo, buy stuff.

As time pulled us further away from the cover shot of Earth, the planet dwindling with time and red-shifting from blue into browns and purples from the newsprint's yellowing, I grew more and more dissatisfied with that aspect of the Last.

Since then, inheritors of the Whole Earth Catalog - WIRED, say; Kelly's Cool Tools, for example; Amazon, as I have linked it here - have proliferated and influenced us on the series of tubes. The too-easy emphasis on consumerism is hard to resist and I certainly fall prey to it myself - I even earn my living primarily from web-based retail sales activity.

I can't help wondering how different things might be if Brand had emphasized a more how-to approach in that book. I loved it dearly; I wished it were different. I wanted spaceship blueprints, not the address of a guy with spaceship blueprints.
posted by mwhybark at 6:04 PM on April 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

I watched excerpts from the McVeigh Tapes on Rachel Maddow and I was just struck by how much McVeigh seemed like. . . I dunno, a guy with some major problems who kind of needed a hug at a crucial point in his life, or something. If you look at his history, he was multiply failed by multiple communities, organizations, and institutions that should have been willing or able to help him. I know he seems like a weird guy to have compassion for, but I'm just struck hollow by the thought that one way or another, it didn't have to go down like this.
posted by KathrynT at 7:01 PM on April 20, 2010

Well shit that got posted to the wrong thread.
posted by KathrynT at 7:01 PM on April 20, 2010

I was reading that comment and I just kept waiting for the part where you were going to explain that McVeigh learned how to build fertilizer bombs from the Whole Earth Catalog or something.
posted by Nothing... and like it at 7:04 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Next expanded my mental universe more than any other 10 books combined. I literally can not imagine who I would be without having read it. My copy is now the oldest bought-new book I own. It's literally falling to pieces. I'll never get rid of it.

Where else could you have read this in 1980?

Computer networks are new telecommunications media for transmitting words and pictures. They're used to send messages, pass on news and gossip, search vast indexed data files, manage multinational businesses, bring together faraway compatriots, and take part in interactive fantasy games. They're being promoted hard by an army of international dreamers and at least 20 major corporations. They seem likely to change our lives more than any technology since the automobile.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:04 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

to make a REASONABLE comment: There was a whole earth catalog rolling around my grandmother's place, and I read that sonofabitch cover to cover every single year whenever we went up there. Starting from when I was like 7. To say that it has dramatically influenced my perceptions of the future and what I wanted life to be like when I grew up would not remotely be an understatement. I wish the online format was friendlier and perhaps more wiki-like, but I'm glad it's around at all.
posted by KathrynT at 7:08 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

It makes me sad to read how many people here are saying "I read it whenever I found it in the public library" - due to the recession here, a lot of the public libraries here in Baltimore are really on the ropes, and the edifices, mostly Carnegie libraries, are largely on the block - every year they have a book sale at the main branch, and every year I feel a little worse about participating - if you really believe in WEC, go underwrite your local public library system -
posted by newdaddy at 8:55 PM on April 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

It was thru the WEC in my college's library thatI discovered Shelter, one of the best books ever on creating and maintaining your own home. I was later pleasantly surprised to find my dad's personal first edition copy in his library at home next to the Foxfire books. It became my bible for do-it-yourselfism, and eventually helped me cope with dropping out of architecture school and moving into a run-down 1940's home. I passed the same duct-taped and restapled copy off to a friend of mine who was fixing up a 1950's trailer, and am considering purchasing another, to start the process anew.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:35 AM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

My life was majorly influenced by an article in the winter 1989 issue of Whole Earth Review. It talked about this world-spanning network called Usenet, and gave pointers on how to get access to it.

I've been on the net ever since. I don't know how long it would have taken for me to find out about this wonderful thing if it wasn't for that article.
posted by bitmage at 7:10 AM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Today is Earth Day. Which has me thinking, via a little free association, about Gurney Norman’s “Divine Right’s Trip” — a hippie, druggie road-trip-novel-cum-lifestyle-manifesto that first appeared “episodically” as a series of sidebars on right-hand pages of Stewart Brand’s 1971 “Last Whole Earth Catalog.”
posted by Nothing... and like it at 12:03 PM on April 22, 2010

« Older Why do women love Jesus?   |   You can watch Google watch the governments... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments