With the subtitle, “How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch,” you can probably guess the genre of The Knowledge. I read this ambitious book over the holidays, hoping that I could learn some of the basics of fields I’m less familiar with such as organic chemistry and medicine. On that front the book delivers, but does it live up to its title?
Some parts of the book were very practical while others seemed superfluous. Purifying water with bleach (p. 37) could be useful in even a small-scale disruption. But in the wake of a larger disaster I find it hard to believe that knowing how to build an internal combustion engine (p. 199) or mix gunpowder (p. 232) would be near-term priorities. (As an aside, the book contains a one-decimeter line segment from which you can reconstruct the entire metric system, but I happen to think that less formal systems of measurement such as the acre–the amount of land a yoke of oxen could plow in a day–would become popular in apocalyptic scenarios.)
The Knowledge is a fun read and contains some useful tips, but I would not want it to be my go-to book for emergencies. That is why I was interested to learn of the “Manual for Civilization” initiative, started by The Long Now Foundation. This is a library of books that were listed by domain experts and Long Now staff and donors in answer to the question “If you were stranded on an island (or small hostile planetoid), what books would YOU want to have with you?“
After reading through the answers I have compiled a short list of my own with the additional qualification that the book offers knowledge that is beneficial even if disaster doesn’t strike. The name after the title is the first recommender on whose list I noticed the book, with a link to their full list of recommendations. (Kevin Kelly’s compilation seemed especially good; his book Cool Tools would likely fit in the list below).
- A History of the World in 100 Objects (Brian Eno; Seeing Like a State by James Scott also made his list and is one of my favorite books for any purpose)
- The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Stewart Brand; his inclusion of The Merck Manual Home Health Handbook, though a mouthful, is probably more practical)
- The Oxford Companion to the Year (Megan and Rick Prelinger)
- The Book of Camping and Woodcraft (Megan and Rick Prelinger)
- The Fairly Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Maria Popova, whose list is one of several with a healthy does of fiction but the only one friendly to children)
- Newton’s Principia for the Common Reader (Neal Stephenson)
- Country Wisdom & Know-How (Kevin Kelly)