Brian Eno’s Reading List for the Manual of Civilization

A long time contributor to understanding the value of ecosystems, music producer, artist, and thinker Brian Eno is on the Founding Board of Long Now foundation, an organization that was established to “provide a counterpoint to today's accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common.”

Eno was the first contributor to a new project by the Foundation — a Manual for Civilization collection, a new space, The Interval, that has since been funded and opened its doors in San Francisco, June 2014. The artist designed a custom sound and light installation for The Interval. 

The floor-to-ceiling library includes the books recommended by Eno:

  • Seeing Like a State by James C Scott — analyzes failed cases of large-scale authoritarian plans in a variety of fields. 
  • Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti — from the destructive behavior of soccer crowds to the horror of tyrannical rulers and from Bushmen and Pueblo Indian rain dances to the pilgrimage to Mecca, the author takes us on a fascinating journey through anthropology, psychology, biology, religion and literature. 
  • The Wheels of Commerce by Fernand Braudel — through the analysis of the machinery of exchange as a whole — from primitive barter up to and including the most sophisticated capitalism — Braudel proposes an ambitious thesis concerning the origins of capitalism.
  • Keeping Together in Time by William McNeill — one of the most widely read and respected historians in America pursues the possibility that coordinated rhythmic movement–and the shared feelings it evokes–has been a powerful force in holding human groups together. From the records of distant and ancient peoples to the latest findings of the life sciences, he discovers evidence that rhythmic movement has played a profound role in creating and sustaining human communities. 
  • Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich — about the origins of communal celebration in human biology and culture. Key questions explored in the book are: if ecstatic rituals and festivities were once so widespread, why is so little left of them today? If the `techniques' of ecstasy represent an important part of the human cultural heritage, why have we forgotten them, if indeed we have?
  • Roll Jordan Roll by Eugene Genovese — rather than emphasizing the cruelty and degradation of slavery, the historian investigates the ways that slaves forced their owners to acknowledge their humanity through culture, music, and religion.
  • A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al — this book has long been a favorite. The authors offer a practical language for building and planning based on natural considerations. What makes buildings, streets, and communities work? There are over two hundred (roughly 250) "patterns" must be present in order for an environment to be pleasing, comfortable, or "alive."
  • The Face of Battle by John Keegan — a look at the direct experience of individuals at the "point of maximum danger," on the battlefield. The military historian and teacher analyzes three battles: Agincourt, Waterloo and The Somme.
  • A History of the World in 100 Objects by  Neil MacGregor — the director of the British Museum, has selected one hundred man-made artifacts, each of which gives us an intimate glimpse of an unexpected turning point in human civilization.
  • Contingency, Irony and Solidarity by Richard Rorty — the philosopher offers an ironic perspective. He argues that thinkers such as Nietzsche, Freud, and Wittgenstein have enabled societies to see themselves as historical contingencies, rather than as expressions of underlying, ahistorical human nature, or as realizations of suprahistorical goals.
  • The Notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci — the genius was a very prolific note taker. Some 6,000 sheets of notes and drawings survive, perhaps one-fifth of what he actually produced. This selection, organized in seven themed sections, offers a fascinating and informative sample of his writings and get an insight into Leonardo's thoughts, and his approach to work and life.
  • The Confidence Trap by David Runciman — a story of modern democracy through the history of moments of crisis, from the First World War to the economic crash of 2008. Global but with a special focus on the United States. It also looks at the confusion and uncertainty created by unexpected victories. The books shows that democracies are good at recovering from emergencies but bad at avoiding them.
  • The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstein — the historian describes the liberating concept of time–"the first grand discovery"–and continues through the age of exploration and the advent of the natural and social sciences. His thesis about discovery ultimately turns on what he calls "illusions of knowledge." If we think we know something, then we face an obstacle to innovation. 
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy — this version of the Russian classic stays clear of Western terminology in speaking about things religious.
  • The Cambridge World History of Food (2-Volume Set) by Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas — a monumental work that sets out to encapsulate much of what is known of the history of food and nutrition throughout the span of human life on earth.
  • Peter the Great: His Life and World by Richard Massie — he was crowned co-tsar at the age of ten. Described as impetuous and stubborn, generous and cruel, tender and unforgiving, he was a man of enormous energy and complexity. The book is a fascinating look at Russian history, the backdrop to Peter's thirst for knowledge, personal hands-on development of the Russian Navy, his massive economic, architectural and social reforms, ingenious manner of self-education by traveling incognito throughout Western Europe, his unique personality displayed through a mock Tsar who promotes Peter to Vice-Admiral, all-night drinking binges with his mock court and Peter's personal heroics.

Brian Eno says that “everything good proceeds from enthusiasm,” from wanting to know how something will turn out. His observation that:

there is an inequality of opportunities among people; some people have more opportunities than others. There is also an inequality of readiness. Some people are more ready to make use of the opportunities that come up than others.

Getting in early, inventing how something is done creates advantage, but luck has a role in our lives