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20 books Brian Eno thinks will help rebuild civilisation


In these trying times, when the idea of one’s mortality alongside the genuine possibility of the dissolution of the human race as we know it becomes a near-daily point of discussion, we thought there was no better time to revisit Brian Eno’s reading list, should the apocalypse come to our doors in the near future.

The music impresario, Roxy Music rocker, long-time David Bowie collaborator, and a true pioneer of modern music, Brian Eno shared a list of books he thinks are essential to rebuilding civilisation, should the worst ever happen. The list was constructed before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and now feels more poignant than ever.

As well as being a massive instigator in the progression of music, working with Bowie, David Byrne, Roxy Music and countless other innovators, Eno is a supreme intellectual.

As a musician Brian Eno has always challenged the nature of what we determine as normal, using an intellectualised sonic tapestry to showcase his evolution. He has written many essays and contributes to the worldwide conversation with astounding ease, always flourishing a whiff of brainpower with a charming humility.

His 1995 book A Year With Swollen Appendices saw Eno write about countless topics including the new ways of singing, the idea of pretension, and of course, the new format of the day CD-Roms.

A passage from the latter chapter probably accurately describes our new office-less lockdown situation, “Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.” His command of language and ideas are a small testament to his devotion to the written word in books both fiction and non-fiction, as well as the life-giving ability they have in their pages.

Eno is also a founding member of the Long Now Foundation which is a San Francisco based non-profit organisation which aims to promote both slower and smarter thinking. One of their primary goals was to create a Manual for Civilization. The manual is a collection of 3,500 titles aimed to help either sustain or rebuild society. It’s a stunning collection that should be visited at your earliest opportunity.

The musician himself contributed the below 20 titles, and with it, we not only see that ethos’ that Eno deems necessary to life (art, understanding, progression above all else) but the beauty Eno has found in these books and taken over to his music. It also makes for a more rounded reading list than we are used to.

There are entries from across the spectrum as Eno gives nods to literary genius in Russian master Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for progressive thinking Eno picks out Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks as well as other titles which explore consciousness, money, our environment and the human condition—all essential post-apocalyptic reading.

It’s a weird situation for us all to be in. Even in perpetual lockdown without a clear end in sight, the prospect of a post-lockdown world is still looming. It’s seen many people reconsider how they were living prior to the pandemic and what, given the opportunity, they will do to change it.

The likelihood is that the human race will recover from the coronavirus, and find a way to treat it effectively. The likelihood is that the apocalypse isn’t upon us (yet). But whichever way you look at it, life after coronavirus is going to be a whole new world. Everything will have changed and life will, in many ways, begin again.

So you best get reading anyway.

Brian Eno’s 20 books for rebuilding civilisation

  • Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott
  • The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art by David Lewis-Williams
  • Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti
  • The Wheels of Commerce by Fernand Braudel
  • Keeping Together in Time by William McNeill
  • Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • Roll Jordan Roll by Eugene Genovese
  • A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al
  • The Face of Battle by John Keegan
  • A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor
  • Contingency, Irony and Solidarity by Richard Rorty
  • The Notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci
  • The Confidence Trap by David Runciman
  • The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin
  • Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection by Sarah Hardy
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Cambridge World History of Food (2-Volume Set) by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas
  • The Illustrated Flora of Britain and Northern Europe by Marjorie Blamey and Christopher Grey Wilson
  • Printing and the Mind of Man by John Carter and Percy Muir
  • Peter the Great: His Life and World by Richard Massie