Books for the Future
October 21, 2012 8:34 PM   Subscribe

What books would be essential for a post apocalyptic library? I've just seen a film where someone walks through a post-apocalyptic landscape delivering a precious book to a haven where they plan to collect the knowledge necessary for rebuilding. Now not to get spoilery or anything but it did seem to me the book in question wouldn't do anyone much good.

It has happened in human history that saved information has affected the course of history: the Renaissance is claimed to be based on recovered classical knowledge; burning the library at Constantinople is supposed to have been a big step back for Western science and culture; and the books saved and hidden by private families in Timbuktu are supposed to be an incredibly valuable repository of alternative cultural histories of the Sudan. (Now I'm not a historian, just a vague general reader.)

What do you think would be essential volumes for a 21C post-apocalypse library? I'm thinking maybe.... agricultural manuals, principles of electricity? Maybe the sort of books colonial officers used to be given, about basic hygiene and water-purification and how to cut down on mosquito infestation? Anatomy, healthcare and birth control? What?
posted by glasseyes to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 86 users marked this as a favorite
I'd definitely nominate some of the Foxfire books or other similar back-to-the-land/doing-shit-on-older-technology books, because most likely there would be no real infrastructure to speak of, and even with a book on the principles of electricity, we ain't gonna get that up and running soon enough for people to need to know how to do things like harvest food for seed or butcher cattle or construct things in the short term, using older technology.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:42 PM on October 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

Previously in AskMe apocalypse preparation: The Gingery "Build a Complete Metalworking Shop from Scrap!" series has been mentioned before, but I haven't met anyone who's actually done it.
posted by zamboni at 8:46 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Where There is No Doctor
posted by dr. boludo at 8:48 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Where There Is No Doctor and Primitive Technology come to mind. Those plus a few of the 'books customers also bought' on farming, foraging, and butchering would probably get you pretty far.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:48 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Survivalist's Bookshelf

Not that I think there would be enough time or space to bring all those books with you in case of a catastrophe.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:53 PM on October 21, 2012

Thanks. Not to thread sit, and I won't, to handle day-to-day crises is one thing, and how not to lose everything is another. I guess that's what I'm wondering. Because human beings have survived and increased without much accurate medical knowledge, or much technology, but what is it we have now that is really worth keeping?

I guess, what in culture do we think most valuable? Now I personally think equality is very valuable, would it be lost? How could it be kept? As far as I know hunter-gatherers have very equal societies, is that a thing that might survive the apocalypse? Might there be something that might mitigate against 'survival of the fittest?' Something basic to humanity, or to our culture now? Or would be like all those Mad Max films?

Shan't thread-sit anymore but will check back tomorrow.
posted by glasseyes at 8:59 PM on October 21, 2012

Maybe not the top of the list, but as soon as we can get the grain growing again we're gonna need Randy Mosher's Radical Brewing.
posted by dr. boludo at 8:59 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Essential Woodworker will give you the know-how you'll need to build stuff using hand tools (when all the expensive shop machines don't have a reliable source of power).
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:35 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Now I personally think equality is very valuable, would it be lost? How could it be kept?

The trouble, I think, is that systemic equality isn't necessarily a matter of know-how. If the rich are mistreating the poor, it's probably not because they want to but have forgotten how. More likely it's that they don't want to treat the poor well in the first place. So I don't know if books are going to be much help from that end.

If books do help, it will be from the other end: pointing out to people who are poor or oppressed that the worst kinds of oppression aren't inevitable. So for instance it would be useful to send forward a book which reminds people that slavery isn't inevitable, that not all civilizations have depended on large-scale slavery in order to get stuff done. Or one that reminds people that monarchy isn't inevitable, or one that explains how 19th and 20th century labor unions worked, or one that points out that women haven't always and everywhere been treated as chattel, or....

There, though, you run into another sticking point, which is that our hypothetical post-apocalyptic society probably won't have universal literacy. If anyone's reading, it's gonna be the elites. So you have to hope that the ideas will still somehow trickle down to the people who need them.

One last point: the line between "handling day-to-day crises" and "preserving equality" is more porous than you might think. First off, foror the guys at the top of the totem pole: the more of their needs they can meet with cleverly-applied technology, the less likely they are to try to go and enslave a bunch of their neighbors. And second, for the guys at the bottom of the totem pole: resisting oppression takes work. You can't do it if you're starving, crippled by disease, or spending every waking hour just working to feed your family. In agricultural or post-agricultural societies, the biggest steps towards equality have been taken by people who ended up with a little extra time and energy to stop and think about their situation.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:38 PM on October 21, 2012

"I guess, what in culture do we think most valuable? Now I personally think equality is very valuable, would it be lost? How could it be kept?"

Oh, man, this is a MUCH more interesting question. I started a little list focusing on the political ideals I hold dear:

  • Plato's Apology of Socrates (a stirring defense of truth and the seeking of it)
  • Milton's Areopagitica (defense of free speech (and by implication, religion) as a good thing in and of itself, not as an instrumental good that serves some other use)
  • A collection of American documents, including the Declaration, Constitution, Gettysburg Address, Letter from a Birmingham Jail ...

    But I'm pretty quickly realizing that if you just list, you could list forever. If you limit yourself, do you limit yourself to the most important primary sources, or to works that best sum up an entire movement of thought? Once we start in on art -- clearly one of the most important works of man -- where do we stop?

    I feel like maybe you'd want to start with something like the Harvard Classics/Dr. Eliot's Five-Foot Shelf, a selected Western canon to build off. "Great Books" sorts of collections usually have the idea that we can acquire culturally-important personal virtues from the proper sorts of reading, and that personally virtuous people can build a more just and good society.

    And then I also think about the children's and young adult literature that is so influential in shaping us because it gets us so young, and that's a fairly modern phenomenon, so you'd get to start your own "great books" list of the classics of children's literature that deserve to survive the apocalypse because they worm their way into your soul and make you more just and good and true ...

  • posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:03 PM on October 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

    Although I don't disagree with Eyebrows McGee's sentiments concerning those works, I think it's worth pointing out that Plato's Apology and Milton's Areopagitica (and, arguably, most of the key American documents) existed for quite a while, through times when their existence seems to have had minimal effect on most people's lives. While I suppose one could argue with some seriousness that an inspiring articulation of the ideas and values you want to pass along is necessary to implement them, it's certainly not sufficient.

    Put another way, if the conditions aren't right for democracy and tolerance in your hypothetical post-apocalyptic society, having a bunch of copies of the Constitution sitting around probably isn't going to help very much. At best, I suppose it might ensure that the ideas you're interested in promoting are more likely to be carried forward, dormant, until conditions happen to be more favorable (assuming the books are preserved at all), but I'm pretty skeptical that their simple existence would make you any likely to bring about those conditions more quickly.

    Though, if you took your political philosophy of choice and mixed it in with practical advice whose value was plainly obvious, then it might lend some credence to the politics — which might otherwise seem a bit lofty and abstract to someone operating at the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy. Many old religious texts are a mixture of spiritual, political, and practical advice; there's no reason you couldn't cook up something like this containing the very best of Western Rational Humanism (or whatever) bundled with basic medical advice and a technology-bootstrapping guide, in the hope that people who realize you've got the right ideas about handwashing will also buy into your views on, say, not enslaving the next village over. I don't know of any books intentionally created like this, though I think the Gingery books and some of the survivalist stuff has a fair bit of philosophy in it — perhaps not the best of modern civilization, though.

    At the risk of leading down a road that might contain spoilers, it's worth noting that IMB's latest makes reference to the idea of a self-proving religious text, which seems like the extreme end of the same scheme.
    posted by Kadin2048 at 10:46 PM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

    If you can find a copy of the Chinese A Barefoot Doctor's Manual that hasn't had all the real medical advice removed from it, it could be very useful. It was designed for China's worst-equipped doctors, and while it contains a lot of old Chinese hokum, it has lots of solid advice too. Again, this is only if you can find a non-New Age version that hasn't had all the real medicine edited out of it.
    posted by cthuljew at 11:06 PM on October 21, 2012

    The Art Of Shen Ku. I think this review describes it pretty well:

    A book to take with you in the event of an apocalypse. Seriously, if you need to know how to distill water to drink, what plants to eat, what tools you'll need, how to make them, medicinal plants, and how to defend yourself if an interloper tries to steal your stuff, this is the book for you. I don't know who the heck this "Zeek" is (i am assuming that's not his real name) but he sure put a lot into this project. The layout, the cross references, the drawings and charts, the sheer volume of information, is astounding. This is one of those books that when I see people giving it star ratings, you just know they haven't actually read it. You can't really read the whole thing all the way through...It's more a reference book. Still, I am giving it four stars because, well, some of it's a little goofy...Sorry Zeek. Still, the good FAR outweighs the bad with this book and it's easy to sit down with it and lose an hour and at the same time realize how very little you actually know about all the things in the world. Fun.
    posted by mannequito at 11:40 PM on October 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

    If you want the Gingery books, better get 'em quick - Lindsay books is closing down soon.

    A couple of additions:
    log and trig tables. mechanical engineering textbooks. metalworkers guides. blacksmithing guides.
    posted by rmd1023 at 4:32 AM on October 22, 2012

    G. Harry Stine wrote a column for Analog called "The Alternate View." One of these was titled "The Most Valuable Books in the World." The premise was similar to yours, what books would you need to rebuild a technological society. His choices:

    "CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics"

    "Marks' Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers"

    "Modern Inorganic Chemistry" by Mellor

    "Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy"

    "The Way Things Work: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Technology (2 Volumes)"

    The column appeared in the January 5, 1981 issue. The follow up column, "More About Those Books," was in the July 20, 1981 issue where a reader suggested "Where There Is No Doctor." Both articles are worth looking up, they stuck in my mind for 30+ years. I couldn't find them on the web, perhaps a better searcher than I can.
    posted by Marky at 5:36 AM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

    I would posit that the reason you were getting so many "survival skills 101" recommendations was because when it comes to "what noble concepts are worth keeping," it's almost impossible for humans to come to a consensus about that, I think. We're all still hammering out the meaning of "fair" and "equal" (I mean, hell, if a good-sized number of people in this country don't believe in marriage equality, and we get into screaming matches about that one single issue, how are we going to agree on all of them?).

    And those concerns also take kind of a back seat if everyone's working a lot harder to avoid starving to death, and from what I understand, in the frontiers and the rural areas - which is what society would effectively be like post-apocalypse - people turned a blind eye to societal transgressions more often, in the interest of people doing what needed to get done. Meaning: if you were a farmer out in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma and had only girl children, you learned to drop any preconceptions about what appropriate "women's work" when it came time to get the harvest in and you needed all hands on deck to work.
    posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:47 AM on October 22, 2012

    I think Marky is on the right track. It might almost be less important to have the applied information than to have the foundational information. No need to reinvent the wheel.

    To that end, I'd add a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR).
    posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:50 AM on October 22, 2012

    Human kind has managed to survive and somehow be literate and they stumble upon a bomb shelter filled with wondrous books that dawn a new age of glory... So like Tao Te Ching, Machiavelli's The Prince, The Art of War, The Principia Mathematica, Gracian's The Art of Worldly Wisdom, Lewis Carrol's Symbolic Logic (and Alice of course). Books on Psychology, History, Biology, Chemisty, Physics, Math. Imagine just having the barest cultural memory of some great lost past and finding a good History book and learning of all the things that did happen in those lost ages.
    posted by zengargoyle at 5:51 AM on October 22, 2012

    Incidentally, The Way Things Work in Stine's list gets a vote from Niven and Pournelle in Lucifer's Hammer.
    posted by steef at 9:22 AM on October 22, 2012

    I was wondering about The Origin of Species not only for the theory but as a primer on the scientific method. Point taken that knowledge and philosophy are no good if you're in no position to find them relevant. So for that reason, if there aren't any hospitals or practising psychiatrists, I don't know how useful something like the DSM-IV-TR would be.

    Apart from that I really like the idea of children's and YA fiction surviving and being valued, sort of as a tribal repository of playfulness and speculation - I had a little vision of a group gathered round the fire after a hard days' graft, listening to Alice in Wonderland and how that would set the dreamers dreaming and thinking and imagining. Of course this is very close to a scene in one of the Mad Maxes, when the group of children is being told about their origins and the spokesperson frames themself within a 'TV screen' made of twigs to talk about 'Captain Walker' and 'Mrs Walker', who is represented by a nudie playing card, the only 'beautiful' representation of a female they've got.

    Also this idea, the survival and transmission of progressive culture in troubled times, underlies Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose; and the medium of transition there is also a book. I do think it's fascinating to speculate what books might do that, beyond those that are useful in a material sense.
    posted by glasseyes at 12:46 PM on October 22, 2012

    Knowledge and philosophy - especially our assessments of human nature or our theories of cosmology - are exactly the things we should preserve through an apocalypse, to my mind, even if in the first few ashy years they are not as relevant as they were when written. Things like the DSM, a good neuroscience textbook, and the latest thinking on physics and mathematics will be invaluable in the eventual cultural recovery. Where do you want the borders of our knowledge to be when they start expanding again? It's going to be easier to regain a structure with psychiatrists and hospitals *with* the DSM-IV than without, even if it seems like an obscure and worthless text during the "dark ages."

    Controversial knowledge should receive special attention. String theory and its discontents; current research on autism; our map of the human genome and instructions in case we need to do it again; cutting-edge evolutionary biology; pedagogy; research on bilingualism and language change.

    What is the 21st century's answer to "dangerous" books like Aristotle's lost work on comedy? Perhaps a no-nonsense sex advice book like the Guide to Getting It On, or books on the trans experience. It's hard to tell what sort of craziness will take hold when a society collapses, but I do recommend preserving all the evidence you will need to counter the argument for "intelligent design." I'd hate for my N-great-grandchildren to be back to that particular square one.
    posted by katya.lysander at 2:20 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

    I must say I'm tending to favorite things that look like mauw fun for awl! Cos otherwise that apocalypse, it will be hard to get through. Beer and fairytales, yay! And things that upset fearful orthodoxies of all kinds.

    You know I could just about think that certain books of the Bible might be useful, but not the whole thing - one of the gospels, Luke perhaps, but by no means the whole thing; the Song of Solomon;

    More generally, in media, maybe Buffy....(Showing my age here, sorry)

    I don't know, stuff that tells you to think for yourself, and trust in humanity. Human beings are so ingenious I think even at a very basic technological level they can fend for themselves, as long as certain principles remain clear and thinking isn't clouded by superstition.

    It's been interesting to see the answers, so thank you, all.
    posted by glasseyes at 4:47 PM on October 22, 2012

    In a post-apocalyptic world, it would be very useful to have access to detailed data and instructions on how to manufacture useful commodities.

    I have a printed copy of this at home just in case I need to build a camera in a post apocalyptic futures.

    The manufacture of optical glass and optical systems: A war-time problem (1921)
    posted by j03 at 4:48 AM on October 23, 2012

    Not long ago I read the book "One Second After." It's a fictional, but realistic book about life after an EMP.

    From Wiki:

    "One Second After" is a 2009 fiction novel by American writer William R. Forstchen. The novel deals with an unexpected electromagnetic pulse attack on the United States as it affects the people living in and around the small American town of Black Mountain, North Carolina.

    This book's premise sets the stage for a series of "die-offs". The first takes place within a week (those in hospitals and assisted living). After about 15 days, salmonella-induced typhoid fever and cholera set in from eating tainted food, drinking tainted water, and generally poor sanitation. Americans have lived in an environment of easy hygiene, sterilization, and antibiotics, making them prime targets for third-world diseases. The lack of bathing and poor diet will lead to rampant infections; deep cuts, rusty nail punctures, and dog bites go untreated with antibiotics, tetanus shots, or rabies treatment as more die from common infections.

    Critical medical supply and food thieves and others are executed in public as enforcement of martial law. In 30 days, cardiac and other drug-dependent patients die off. In 60 or so days, the pacemaker and Type I diabetics patients begin to die off. The 5% of population having severe psychotic disorders that no longer have medication will re-create bedlam. Jury-rigged wood-burning stoves lead to carbon monoxide deaths and fires that cannot be controlled due to the lack of a fire department.

    Then, refugees from the cities show up looking for food and shelter and the fight over scarce resources leads to confrontation, home invasion, and more violence-related die-offs. The community becomes an inviting target for escaped prisoners and organized gangs and more violence-related die-off. Ration cards are issued to conserve the little remaining food; regardless, the community slowly starves, with the elderly the first to die off. Next, parents starve themselves to save their children. Throughout this period suicides are common. After a year, approximately 20% of the initial population has "survived".

    The "average" die-off for the country was 90% leaving 30 million surviving out of original 300 million US population. The food-rich Midwest had the highest survival rate with a 50% die-off. New York City and Florida had a 95% die-off from infighting among their large populations, low levels of cultivated land, high elderly population, a lack of air conditioning, rampant transmission of disease, and natural disasters such as hurricanes.
    posted by sybarite09 at 6:01 AM on October 23, 2012

    What books would be essential for a post apocalyptic library?

    Pretend you are picking through the wreckage of a community college book store. Grab all the very obvious and basic sciences and technologies: mathematics, biology, chemistry, electronics, nursing, manufacturing, etc. These books will significantly improve and lengthen the lives of most people. Increase harvests. Light and heat homes. Bring clean water in from the hills. Cure basic diseases. Manage pain. Send information over distances. Recreate everything you need to get civilization back up to the 21st century theoretically, if not in fact, within about a hundred years. People would need a few generations to fully digest these books and rebuild the interlocking infrastructures, but they would have the vast advantage of knowing what will certainly work even if they don't quite know how to do it yet.

    But besides these obvious choices, rescue literature from the dust. If nothing else, grab the latest Norton Anthology of English Literature (or Western Literature or whatever you can find and carry). All sciences and technologies will be reinvented eventually, with or without your rescued books, but there is no progress in art, no inevitable march into the future. Lost literature is lost forever. You will not deduce Shakespeare from his predecessors or successors.
    posted by pracowity at 6:30 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

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