Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Cool tools and hot ideas

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The Next Whole Earth Catalog

In 1968, in a garage in Menlo Park, California, a remarkable publication was born. It was laid out with an IBM Selectric typewriter and a Polaroid industrial camera, in an office furnished with scrap doors and plywood, and printed cheaply on rough paper. Modeled after the L.L. Bean catalog, it opened with Buckminster Fuller, ended with the I Ching, and included listings for portable sawmills, kits for geodesic domes, and books on everything from astronomy to beekeeping to graphic design, interspersed with a running commentary that cheerfully articulated an entire theory of civilization. The result was the original manual of soft innovation, a celebration of human ingenuity that sold millions of copies while retaining an endearing funkiness, and it profoundly influenced subcultures as different as the environmental movement and Silicon Valley. As I’ve said before, the Whole Earth Catalog is both a guide to good reading and living and a window onto an interlocking body of approaches to managing the complicated problems that modern life presents. Its intended readers, both then and now, are ambitious, but resistant to specialization; interested in technology as a means of greater personal freedom; and inspired by such practical intellectuals as Fuller, Gregory Bateson, and Catalog founder Stewart Brand himself, who move gracefully from one area of expertise to the next.

And it had an enormous impact on my own life. I grew up in the Bay Area, not far from where the Catalog was born, and I’ve been fascinated by it for over twenty years. Leafing through its oversized pages was like browsing through the world’s greatest bookstore, and as I photocopied my favorite sections and slowly acquired the works it recommended, it subtly guided my own reading and thinking. In its physical format, with its double spreads on subjects from computers to ceramics, it emphasized the connections between disciplines, and the result was a kind of atlas for living in boundary regions, founded on an awareness of how systems evolve and how individuals fit within the overall picture. I became a novelist because it seemed like the best way of living as a generalist, tackling big concepts, and studying larger patterns. It provided me with an alternative curriculum that took up where my university education left off, an array of tools for addressing my own personal and professional challenges. Looking at my bookshelves now, the number of books whose presence in my life I owe to the Catalog is staggering: A Pattern Language, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, On Growth and Form, The Plan of St. Gall in Brief, and countless others.

Cool Tools by Kevin Kelly

The Catalog has been out of print for a long time, and although the older editions are still available in PDF form online, I’ve often wished for an updated version that could survey the range of books and tools that have appeared in the fifteen years since the last installment was published. Much to my delight, I’ve recently discovered that such a work exists, in a somewhat different form. Kevin Kelly, a former Brand protégé who later became the executive editor of Wired, once wrote: “It is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.” It seems that Kelly has slightly modified his point of view, because last year he released Cool Tools, an oversized, self-published overview of hardware, gadgets, books, and software that comes as close as anything in decades to recapturing the spirit of the Catalog itself. Cool Tools originally appeared as a series of reviews on Kelly’s blog, but in book form, it gains a critical sense of serendipity: you’re constantly exposed to ideas that you never knew you needed. I’ve been browsing through it happily for days, and I’ve already found countless books that I can’t believe I didn’t know about before: Scott McCloud’s Making Comics, Richard D. Pepperman’s The Eye is Quicker, James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games, and many more.

I can quibble with Cool Tools in small ways. Personally, I’d prefer to see more books and fewer gadgets, and I especially wish that Kelly hadn’t confined himself to works that were still in print: some of the most exciting, interesting ideas can be found in authors that have fallen off the radar, and with used copies so easily accessible online, there’s no reason not to point readers in their direction. And we get only glimpses of the overarching philosophy of life that was so great a part of the original Catalog‘s appeal. But I’m still profoundly grateful that it exists. It serves as a kind of sanity check, or a course correction, and I’m gratified whenever I see something in its pages that I’ve independently discovered on my own. My favorite entry may be for the Honda Fit, my own first car, because it sits next to a parallel entry for the blue Volvo 240 station wagon—”the cheapest reliable used car”—that my parents owned when I was growing up in the East Bay. I spent a lot of time in both vehicles, which serves as a reminder that who I am and what I might become is inextricably tied into the culture from which the Catalog emerged. Cool Tools probably won’t have the cultural impact of its predecessors, but it’s going to change more than a few lives, especially if it falls into the hands of bright, curious kids. And that’s more than enough.

Written by nevalalee

April 21, 2014 at 9:39 am

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