Rebuilding The Future: What book would you bring?
An ongoing dinner table discussion has been the question of “what three books would you take to help rebuild the future?” This discussion was prompted by a final scene in the 1960 film The Time Machine, based on the novel by H.G. Wells, where the hero returns to the future taking three books from his shelves with him to help rebuild civilisation. 1
Some may argue that we live in a post-literate world, but this can be easily discarded as a concern when it becomes increasingly obvious that communication is key to everything. Author Neil Gaiman argues that “we navigate the world with words” and “people who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate.” 2 Communication still is the center node of our civilisation, and whether it be physical or e- books, literature still holds a valuable place. Reading is about freedom: freedom to read, freedom of ideas, and a freedom to communicate: “It is about education, about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.” 3 Information can come in many forms, but it always has value for someone. It could be simply when to plant crops, or where to find things, or how to make things, or how to understand people. As such, when pondering the opening question we need to begin to consider: what information is most important?
If the future is similar to where we are already heading with generations that are increasingly less literate, then the value of books cannot be underestimated. New generations may be even less able to navigate the world, to understand and solve problems. They may be easily misled and misinformed. If we are responsible to the future then we cannot overlook the importance of books. 4 As Gaiman wrote:
Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.
Books affect people in different ways and can help us share knowledge, inspiration and discoveries in many fields. 5 Throughout time some books have had a greater impact than others, even changing the face of history and people’s understandings forever. 6 So the question remains: what is most important for the rebuilding of the future?
Encyclopaedias and Dictionaries
The first category is one that to a degree needs to be seriously considered. Before even considering any other texts, is not the requirement of basic literacy to be able to read those texts? Both dictionaries and encyclopaedias have always held central importance in the learning of basic literacy skills. (I will note that as English is my first language I have prioritised this language, however, this entire argument and list of texts could be in any language – I actually don’t believe it necessarily matters which language, as long as it meets the needs of the future you are attempting to rebuild.)
A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson. Considered the most influential dictionary of the English language, Johnson compiled this book over seven years independently. Despite being credited as the foundational text for the study of the English language and lexicography, Johnson’s dictionary was not the first of its kind, but it was the most comprehensive and well-researched. 7 Quite frankly any comprehensive dictionary could be placed here, but when considering Gaiman’s stance that books are a way to speak with the dead it seems fitting to select a foundational dictionary.
Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia. One volume of general information presented in bite sized chunks to get one started reeducating the world. 8 This is a difficult selection, as obviously a full set of encyclopedias could be very helpful, yet we are restricted to only three books in total, so a condensed works could be very useful. Encyclopedias collect a wealth of facts and general information, however, it is important to perhaps consider the framework of the one being selected as they tend to privilege the society and time in which they are produced.
This is an incredibly broad category and would include functional texts belonging to science and history. They include any text that can be used to help people understand how something functions. Since the question was originally prompted by Wells’ novel it is often believed that the hero would have taken scientific texts due to Wells’ own interest in speculative science. However, the selection of manuals can be as dangerous as selecting religious texts. Not all scientific knowledge has led to the betterment of humankind. 9
Pocket Ref or its big brother Desk Ref. All the essential formulas and mechanical information for basic essentials of modern life and even such things as flight. The foundations that underlie modern technology can be found in this tiny little book.
Gray’s Anatomy. You are going to need a head start on the field of medicine. This is the classic source that covers many of the basics and can be extrapolated upon. 10
Elements by Euclid. Written in Alexandria around 300BC, Elements is a 13-book treatise whose 465 theorems lay down what the Greeks knew about geometry at that time. Highlights include a proof of Pythagoras’s theorem, and proof that there are an infinite number of prime numbers. 11
These are only three suggestions. There are a plethora of basic manuals on agriculture, engineering, mechanics, medicine, and more that would also be important in a developing society. In many ways this category fits the “need” of the future as they are practical texts that would help in daily life. If the primary concern would be the actual “rebuilding” of science and technology, then this category would be very important.
One of the hardest questions to address is if we should prioritise ancient and classic literature over modern. After all, this was the literature that shaped our own future, so does it not too have great value for shaping a new future? A number of texts in this category also offer insight to aspects of civilisation concerning ethics, morals, and philosophy. Here are some texts that could support a preference for this area:
The Republic by Plato. Written around 380 BCE, this text is considered to be one of the most influential pieces ever written. The Republic observes justice in man and politics and discusses the role of the philosopher in society. Many of the intellectual concepts contained in The Republic are still discussed today, but the text is also an important historical document that provides historians with a snapshot of Greece at the time of its writing.
Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy is an epic poem that details a journey through the realms of the afterlife and, allegorically, the soul’s discovery of God. Long considered to be the greatest piece of Italian literature, the Divine Comedy also provides us with a closer view of medieval Christian theology and philosophy.
The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer. These two ancient Greek epic poems are not only the preeminent works in ancient Greek literature, but they are also incredibly influential texts for all forms of art, thought, and music in Western civilisation. The Iliad details a few weeks during the end of the Trojan War and the Odyssey describes Odysseus’ ten-year journey home from the Trojan War. These two works are important for their detail of Greek history and legend, the composition of story, and the development of themes.
Geographia by Ptolemy. Ptolemy wrote and mapped the world according to the knowledge he had available to him in the 2nd century. His maps and methodologies were used for hundreds of years afterward. Today’s cartography is directly descended from Ptolemy’s work. 12 An interesting addition that could be coupled with a modern Atlas to help people with the remapping of their world.
Aesop’s Fables. Aesop’s Fables are a collection of fables and tales credited to Aesop, a slave in ancient Greece who is purported to have either written them or collected them sometime during his life between between 620 and 560 BCE. The fact that these tales written in ancient Greece by a slave are still well known to this day is astounding. Fables like The Tortoise and the Hare and The Ant and the Grasshopper are still taught to young children around the world and reinterpreted in various forms. The stories use animal characters in funny and often fantastic situations to illustrate simple life lessons such as “slow and steady wins the race” and “to work today is to eat tomorrow.” The fables can probably continue to be used to teach simple moral lessons for a long time to come. 13
One area of great discontent in this argument is the inclusion of religious texts. 14 Many people raise the point that such texts include guidance for morals, ethics, and social construction. Their stories can offer answers to moral dilemmas and provide an understanding to the background of the world that came before. However, many others point out, fairly, the numerous wars, discontent and death that has been tied to an over emphasis on religion in our world. After all many dystopian stories have already reflected the dangers of letting such books continue into the future. A good reason to either ignore this category or to at least choose carefully.
The Bible. This sacred text brought Christianity to the world and has continued to serve as a source of inspiration for millions of people. It is the most translated and the most frequently purchased book in the world.
The Qur’an. The sacred text of Islam, the Qur’an is believed to be the last word of God told to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel over a period of 23 years. This book is the cornerstone of the Islamic religion.
The Torah. The written laws and teachings that are contained in the Tanakh have offered a way of life for those of the Jewish faith. The text provides teaching and methods of practice for daily living and has influenced art and literature in countless ways.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Perhaps the most well-known Tibetan text, this book was written by a Tibetan monk and discusses what happens during death, the time between death and rebirth, and rebirth.
The Analects by Confucius. The Analects is a collection of sayings and ideas attributed to Confucius, a Chinese philosopher. The text has been read and studied in China for the last 2,000 years and has had a monumental impact on Chinese culture, values, art, and thought. 15
As Gaiman argues, fiction is more than just a way to develop literacy skills. It is a way to learn about the world, to look through the eyes of other people, to see that others too have struggled, experienced and loved as you do. 16 Fiction is a way to build empathy, a value that is often seen too little in our world, and would be a vital value for the future. Empathy is a tool that can be used to build people into groups, rather than being simply self-obsessed individuals. 17 More than this too, it can offer a vision for new futures, new hopes and a path forward.
Often a key complaint levelled against general fiction is that it is nothing more than escapism. Yet, not everyone shares the same level of a content life, and who knows what the future will be. Gaiman offered that the strength of fiction is that it can offer an avenue to carry one beyond the terrible situation one is currently trapped within. He asks “if you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it?” 18 Fiction can open a door, it can shine sunshine on a dark day, or provide a place to go when one has no exit. 19 It can also provide knowledge: knowledge about the world and your predicament, and it can provide “weapons and armor” to escape for real.
However, within fiction is a plethora of range. A plethora of ever expanding genres and sub-genres that meet the needs of a variety of readers. We select certain books because something in the story resonates within us. Reading these particular novels gives us a sense of belonging, of being on familiar ground. 20 It fulfills a human need for old-fashioned storytelling that helps blunt the harsh realities of life. 21 As such I have offered a very narrow range taken not only from a love of such literature, but instead an acknowledgement of the important messages such stories have to share.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The novel written in 1960 deals with issues of race and class discrimination, but in a way which is almost uniquely accessible to younger and older readers alike.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Though Tolstoy was hesitant to call this a novel, War and Peace is often included in the discussion of the best novels of all time. Chronicling the French invasion of Russia in 1812, the book looks at the psychological effects of the war and the philosophical discussions that it created. 22
The complete works of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is not only an influential source for many modern writers, and could be used as such in the future, it is also in itself based on many older stories. The complete works provides stories of tragedy, comedy and histories, all of which offer a view to understanding human nature.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Written in 1957 it helped found and sustain the new economics, which rejects ethical altruism in favour of unfettered capitalism, and puts the concept of self, before society. Rand termed her philosophy “Objectivism”, describing its essence as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life.” 23
Information itself is important to any society. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. But we don’t know what information our future will need, as such it is difficult to gauge what type of texts in this enormous category would be of the most use. I have added this section as separate to manuals to allow for the inclusion of theoretical texts that have both reflected and shaped modern society.
The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. The Rights of Man argues that political revolution is acceptable and permissible when a government fails to perform its duty of protecting the natural rights of its citizens. Written as a defense of the French Revolution, Paine’s 1791 book was widely circulated and challenged all societal institutions that don’t benefit the nation overall, including institutions such as monarchies and aristocracies.
The Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft. Considered the first great treatise on feminism, Wollstonecraft’s text was written in response to those who felt that women should not be educated. She argued that women are deserving of an education that is proportionate to their position in society, that of educators and companions. Wollstonecraft demonstrated that inequality is not only morally and ethically wrong, but is also economically and socially irresponsible.
Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton. Written while Cambridge was closed because of the plague, Newton’s Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica details the principles of gravity, mechanics, calculus, and light and color. This book set the stage for modern studies of both math and physics.
The Meaning of Relativity by Albert Einstein. The Meaning of Relativity is a collection of the Stafford Little Lectures made by Albert Einstein in 1921 at Princeton University. Delivered five years after Einstein’s groundbreaking paper on general relativity was published, these lectures sum up the man’s work.
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. This work by Darwin laid out the foundation for the theory of evolution. Since its publication, the book’s theories and observations have helped make life sciences what they are today. Darwin’s adaptation and evolutionary model still aid modern scientists as they build a better understanding of all Earth’s species, including our own. 24
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac, first published in 1949, a year after its author’s death, is one of the most influential books about the natural world ever published. It helped to transform what had been an essentially conservative, utilitarian conservation movement into the first stirrings of an ecologically centred green movement in the west. 25
There are obviously arguments that can be made for many different texts, and even for ignoring or privileging particular categories. There is even the discussion of what will the future look like? Without seeing it in advance how is one to know what to take? Will we need instructional basics more than social and ethical texts? Or is the future a soulless place that needs empathy and storytelling? Without knowing what future lies ahead it becomes about the texts you believe will make the best future. Personally I would attempt to take a mix: Grey’s Anatomy, because I think of all things we need medical knowledge and an understanding of the human body is always important; an agricultural guide since I know nothing about farming and think that is true of many people, so something along the lines of A Hobby Farmer’s Guide for Dummies; and finally I would take the Collected Works of Shakespeare, for if this was the only literature to survive it is a great source for inspiration, an interesting selection of language and if I could reshape the future where everyone speaks in iambic pentameter I think that would be awesome.
The question remains: what would you take to help rebuild the future?
- Chimes Freedom. (2015). What are your 3 books to build civilization. Chimes Freedom. Retrieved from http://www.chimesfreedom.com/2015/03/10/what-are-your-3-books-to-build-civilization/ ↩
- Ten books that changed the world. (2015). The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/07/10-books-that-shaped-the-world ↩
- Sahagian, J. (2017). The top 25 books that changed the world. Cheat Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/the-top-25-books-that-changed-the-world.html/?a=viewall ↩
- Patterson, A. (2016). The 17 most popular genres in fiction – and why they matter. Writers Write. Retrieved from https://writerswrite.co.za/the-17-most-popular-genres-in-fiction-and-why-they-matter/ ↩
- 20 novels that changed the world. (2012). Unpublished Writer Blog. Retrieved from https://unpublishedwriterblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/20-novels-that-changed-the-world/ ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.