Brain Pickings

33 Books on How to Live: My Reading List for the Long Now Foundation’s Manual for Civilization

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Books that help us make sense of ourselves, our world, and our place in it.

In a recent piece about the Manual for Civilization — the Long Now Foundation’s effort to assemble 3,500 books most essential for sustaining or rebuilding humanity, as part of their collaboratively curated library of 3,500 books for long-term thinking — I lamented the fact that Stewart Brand’s 76-book contribution to the Manual contained only one and a half books authored by a woman. To their credit, the folks at the Long Now reached out immediately, inviting me to contribute my own list to the collaborative library they’re building.

In grappling with the challenge, I faced a disquieting and inevitable realization: The predicament of diversity is like a Russian nesting doll — once we crack one layer, there’s always another, a fractal-like subdivision that begins at the infinite and approaches the infinitesimal, getting exponentially granular with each layer, but can never be fully finished. If we take, for instance, the “women problem” — to paraphrase Margaret Atwood — then what about Black women? Black queer women? Non-Western Black queer women? Non-English-speaking non-Western Black queer women? Non-English-speaking non-Western Black queer women of Jewish descent? And on and on. Due to that infinite fractal progression, no attempt to “solve” diversity — especially no thirty-item list — could ever hope to be complete. The same goes for other variables like genre or subject: For every aficionado of fiction, there’s one of drama, then 17th-century drama, then 17th-century Italian drama, and so on.

But I had to start somewhere. So, with the discomfort of that inescapable disclaimer, I approached my private, subjective, wholly non-exhaustive selection of thirty-three books to sustain modern civilization and the human spirit — books at the intersection of introspection and outrospection, art and science, self and society.Above all, books that help us (or, at least, have helped me) learn how to live — how to make sense of ourselves, our world, and our place in it. Please enjoy. (A parenthetical “more” link appears after books I’ve previously contemplated in greater detail on Brain Pickings.)

  1. The Principles of Uncertainty (public library) by Maira Kalman (more here)
  2. On Photography (public library) by Susan Sontag (more here and here)
  3. The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library) by Alan Watts (more here and here)
  4. Varieties of Scientific Experience (public library) by Carl Sagan (more here)
  5. Ways of Seeing (public library) by John Berger (more here)
  6. Optimism (public library) by Helen Keller (more here)
  7. Man’s Search for Meaning (public library) by Viktor Frankl (more here)
  8. The Diaries of Maria Mitchell (public library) by Maria Mitchell (more here and here)
  9. I’ll Be You and You Be Me (public library) by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (more here)
  10. On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) by Alexandra Horowitz (more here and here)
  11. Letter to My Daughter (public library) by Maya Angelou (more here)
  12. The Accidental Universe (public library) by Alan Lightman (more here and here)
  13. Collected Poems (public library) by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  14. The Year of Magical Thinking (public library) by Joan Didion (more here)
  15. The Color Purple (public library) by Alice Walker
  16. Here Is New York (public library) by E.B. White (more here)
  17. The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (public library) by Hans Christian Andersen (more here)
  18. Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (public library) by Kay Larson (more here)
  19. Orlando: A Biography (public library) by Virginia Woolf (more here)
  20. A Short History of Nearly Everything (public library) by Bill Bryson
  21. The Collected Poems (public library) by Sylvia Plath
  22. How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (public library) by Sarah Bakewell (more here)
  23. Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (public library) by Lisa Randall
  24. The Politics (public library) by Aristotle
  25. Freedom from Fear (public library) by Aung San Suu Kyi (more here)
  26. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (public library) by James Gleick (more here)
  27. Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? edited by Gemma Elwyn Harris (more here)
  28. The Feminine Mystique (public library) by Betty Friedan (more here)
  29. The Collected Poems (public library) by Denise Levertov
  30. The Pillow Book (public library) by Sei Shonagon (more here)
  31. Bird by Bird (public library) by Anne Lamott (more here)
  32. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library) by Cheryl Strayed (more here)
  33. The Little Prince (public library) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (more here)

Keep an eye on the Manual for Civilization for more reading lists to complete the 3,500-book library, and consider joining me in supporting the project here.

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