My great books #6: The Whole Earth Catalog
Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.
The Whole Earth Catalog—or, as Steve Jobs famously called it, “Google in book form”—was a product of a time and place that is close to my heart: the Bay Area of the late sixties and early seventies, centered in particular on Berkeley and Sausalito. Stewart Brand conceived of it as a book, modeled on the L.L. Bean catalog, that would provide resources for exploring a range of issues that remain relevant today, notably sustainable living, simplicity, and ecology in its original sense, which spans everything from planetary environmentalism to the humblest forms of home economics. In its book recommendations, accompanied by a running commentary that articulated an entire theory of civilization, it gave readers the tools to investigate space exploration, personal computing, art, literature, anthropology, architecture, health, backpacking, mysticism, and much more. As a work that unfolds endlessly onto others, it’s been the most influential book in my life by far. Of the five titles that I mentioned here last week, I owe my discovery of three of them to browsing in the Catalog, while a fourth, The Complete Walker, features prominently in its pages. (Strangely enough, Brand and his colleagues never seem to have taken any notice of The Anatomy of Melancholy, which played much the same role in the seventeenth century that the Catalog did in the twentieth, as a kind of clearinghouse of ideas and excerpts for curious readers.)
Taken simply as a guide to the world’s greatest bookstore, it’s an essential part of anyone’s reading life. (The edition to get is The Next Whole Earth Catalog, which is so massive and packed with information that leafing through its pages feels like an adventure in itself.) But its larger vision is what lingers. The Catalog is both a guide to good reading and a window onto an interlocking body of approaches to managing the complicated problems that modern life presents. In its physical format, with double spreads on everything from computers to ceramics, it naturally emphasizes the connections between disciplines, and the result is an atlas for living in boundary regions, founded on an awareness of how systems evolve and how individuals fit within the overall picture. Its intended readers, both then and now, are resistant to specialization; interested in technology as a means of enabling choices; and inspired by such practical intellectuals as Buckminster Fuller, Gregory Bateson, and Stewart Brand himself, who move gracefully from one area of expertise to the next. Browsing through it even for a few minutes is enough to rekindle your belief in serendipity and the possibilities that the world presents, and although it has inspired a number of worthy successors, notably Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools, the original remains irreplaceable. It turned me, for better or worse, into a generalist. And it’s still the model I try to follow whenever I wonder what my life should be.