Brain Pickings

Brian Eno’s Reading List: 20 Essential Books for Sustaining Civilization

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Deconstructing a magnificent mind through his reading diet for intellectual survival.

UPDATE: The folks from the Long Now have kindly asked me to contribute to the Manual for Civilization library — here is my own reading list.

There is something inescapably alluring about the reading lists of cultural icons, perhaps because in recognizing that creativity is combinatorial and fueled by networked knowledge, we intuitively long to emulate the greatness of an admired mind by replicating the bits and pieces, in this case the ideas found in beloved books, that went into constructing it.

After the reading lists of Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, Nick Cave, and David Bowie, now comes one from Brian Eno — pioneering musician, wise diarist, oblique strategist of creativity — compiled for the Long Now Foundation’s Manual for Civilization, a collaboratively curated library for long-term thinking. Eno, one of the Long Now’s founding board members, contributes twenty titles to the project’s intended collection of 3,500 books most essential for sustaining or rebuilding civilization:

  1. Seeing Like a State (public library) by James C. Scott (1998)
  2. The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (public library) by David Lewis-Williams (2002)
  3. Crowds and Power (public library) by Elias Canetti (1962)
  4. The Wheels of Commerce (public library) by Fernand Braudel (1982)
  5. Keeping Together in Time (public library) by William McNeill (1995)
  6. Dancing in the Streets (public library) by Barbara Ehrenreich (2007)
  7. Roll Jordan Roll (public library) by Eugene Genovese (1974)
  8. A Pattern Language (public library) by Christopher Alexander et al (1977)
  9. The Face of Battle (public library) by John Keegan (1976)
  10. A History of the World in 100 Objects (public library) by Neil MacGregor (2010)
  11. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (public library) by Richard Rorty (1989)
  12. The Notebooks (public library) by Leonardo da Vinci (1952 ed.)
  13. The Confidence Trap (public library) by David Runciman (2013)
  14. The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin (1983)
  15. Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection (public library) by Sarah Hrdy (1999)
  16. War and Peace (public library) by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
  17. The Cambridge World History of Food (2-Volume Set) (public library) by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas (2000)
  18. The Illustrated Flora of Britain and Northern Europe (public library) by Marjorie Blamey and Christopher Grey Wilson (1989)
  19. Printing and the Mind of Man (public library) by John Carter and Percy Muir (1983)
  20. Peter the Great: His Life and World (public library) by Richard Massie (1980)

One interesting observation: The majority of Eno’s favorite books were published in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was in his mid-twenties to late thirties — indication, perhaps, that this is the golden age within a lifetime, when we have transcended the know-it-all arrogance of youth, haven’t yet entered the know-it-old complacency of old age, and live with that wondrous combination of receptivity to new ideas and just enough not-yet-calcified intellectual foundation with which to integrate and contextualize them.

Join me in supporting the Manual for Civilization, then revisit Eno’s insights on art.

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