Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Steve Jobs and “the hippie Wikipedia”

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With the unexpected resignation of Steve Jobs as chief executive of Apple, many of us, including me, have probably been inspired to revisit the legendary commencement address he gave at Stanford in 2005, which has deservedly become one of the most famous speeches of its kind. The entire address is worth reading, of course, but in particular, I’ve always loved its closing appreciation of The Whole Earth Catalog, which Jobs describes as “sort of like Google in paperback form.” More recently, a New York Times article on Jobs referred to it as “a kind of hippie Wikipedia.” Both characterizations are fairly accurate, but The Whole Earth Catalog is much more. For as long as I can remember, I’ve found it to be an invaluable guide and source of inspiration, and I can sincerely say that it deserves to be a part of every thinking person’s life.

Of course, I’m somewhat biased, because The Whole Earth Catalog is a product of a time and place that is close to my heart: the Bay Area of the 1970s, centered in particular on Berkeley, Sausalito, and Menlo Park. Stewart Brand, another singular visionary, founded the Catalog to provide access to tools for those interested in exploring a wide range of issues that remain important today, notably sustainable living, simplicity, and ecology in its original sense, which spans everything from environmentalism to the most straightforward kind of home economics. Above all, the Catalog was the expression of the same restless curiosity that informed the early years of Apple. It gave you the tools to investigate space exploration, personal computing, art, literature, anthropology, architecture, health, backpacking, mysticism, and much more, almost without end. And the most useful tools were books.

As a lifelong obsessive reader, I’m always looking for new things to read, and the classic editions of the Catalog have pointed me toward more great books, many neglected or out of print, than any other source. First and foremost is Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, the best nonfiction book of the past fifty years, which gets a page of its own in the Catalog, with R.H. Blyth’s great, eccentric Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics close behind. There’s The Plan of St. Gall in Brief; D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s classic On Growth and Form; and such odd, essential books as Soil and Civilization; Form, Function, and Design; Structures; The Prodigious Builders; The Natural Way to Draw; Poker: A Guaranteed Income for Life; Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings; and the works of Lewis Mumford and Buckminster Fuller. All these I owe to the Catalog.

And the Catalog itself is full of wisdom that doesn’t date: original essays, tidbits of advice in the writeups of individual books, ideas and inspirations all but tucked into the margin. I own three editions, but my favorite is The Next Whole Earth Catalog, which, at five pounds and fifteen by eleven inches, is as big as a paperback book can get. Opening it to any page reminds me at once of what really matters, a world of books, ideas, and simple living, and it has always steered me back on track whenever I’ve been tempted to stray. And Steve Jobs can probably say the same thing. At the end of his address at Stanford, he quotes four words from the back cover of the 1974 edition of the Catalog, which many have since misattributed to Jobs himself: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” And if the career of Steve Jobs is merely the most striking illustration of what these words can do, we can thank the Catalog for this as well.

Written by nevalalee

August 25, 2011 at 9:01 am

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