Intermission: The Scriptorium
On building a library for the times
I’ve been thinking a lot about Progress recently. I’ve long been a critic of the notion that forward movement in the current direction equals improvement, and it’s probably safe to say that this is now becoming an almost-mainstream view. It’s hard to look around and be impressed with the sight of the approaching cliff edge, after all.
But Progress - capitalised - is not just a description of an advance through time. It’s really a faith: the sacred story of Machine modernity, the central tenets of which I attempted to sketch out in my most recent essay here. Until recently, it was hard to speak out against the notion in public without ridicule, and in many cases it still is. Of course, as Gandhi may or may not have once noted, this is a good sign. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win. If he didn’t say that, he should have done.
But post-2020, I have the strong feeling that a lot of bets are off. I don’t know about you, but I can feel the old tenets falling like ninepins. Certainly as the naked narratives struggle for balance, I don’t know who or what to believe anymore. And in the age of obligatory vaccine passports, facts that turn into conspiracy theories and then back again depending on who’s writing the story, and up-is-down notions that nobody had heard of yesterday suddenly hardening into Official Reality, it’s hard to know why I should believe in anything that I can’t touch, smell, measure or make.
This can be liberating sometimes. But it can also be destabilising, as we can see around us daily. Progress is stumbling; it is no longer delivering the goods. And as we push up against the Earth’s ecological limits, and the limits of our ability to power our growth economy without diminishing returns, the resulting cracks in our cultures will grow wider. If you look into those cracks for long enough, it will not be good for you. I know, because I’ve done it.
For that reason, it is necessary to look up. It is necessary to remember not only that Progress is nothing more than a story, but also that on the other side of that story lies something else entirely. On the other side of Machine modernity lies another world; one which we will not live to see, but which our descendants will, and to which we are all contributing with what we build, teach and leave behind each day of our lives.
Looked at in the right light, this can make even the current descent seem rich with potential. What do you want to leave behind? What could you do that might feature as a building block in what comes after the delusions of modernity? What is worth doing that will shore up and seed beauty, truth, strength, and the richness of real cultures in our lives and lands? And what would we need to know to be able to sow our little seed as part of the silent, steady planting?
With those questions in mind, I’m beginning a little project here, inspired by a similar recent call from my fellow Substacker N. S. Lyons, whose series The Upheaval you should subscribe to if you haven’t already. I want to see if we can build up something of a reading list - perhaps even a library - to deepen and complement the subjects I’m writing about here.
I’ve been drawing from what I regard as useful and important books in my essays, and will keep doing that; but there will be plenty I haven’t read or even heard of. Many of you have been pouring suggestions into the comments threads already. So what if together we could put together a reading list for the times: a collection of books (and essays and films and even podcasts) which will both help us understand the current situation, and offer ideas about how to do the work of reconstruction and reversion to truth which I increasingly think is the task of the age?
That’s the plan. I would love to hear of anything you recommend in the comments below. Down the line I will compile a proper list from our thoughts, which I’ll then open up for continued editing. We may even end up with our own curriculum …
Let’s see if, like the monastics of old, we can’t start to build a library for the times beyond. Over to you.
The Powers Trilogy, by Walter Wink
Paul and the Uprising of the Dead Trilogy, by Daniel Oudshoorn
Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Marie Brown
Living at the Edges of Capitalism, Andrej Grubacic and Denis O'Hearn
The Art of Not Being Governed, James C Scott
The Many-Headed Hydra, Peter Linebagh and Marcus Rediker
Caliban and the Witch, Sylvia Federici
Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber
Great idea, Paul!
As a lover of Poetry I'm a believer that the human species's poetic consciousness is a very important "Library" to leave our descendants one way or another, as long as we can assume literacy in various languages is still a thing. Even if physical books become too difficult to maintain, perhaps our descendants can be like the old Welsh Bards and sing and chant their poems. Poets I'd want to take into the Apocalypse would be:
Keats + Shelley + Byron
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Miguel de Unamuno
Rumi + Hafiz
So many more but that's a start. Then the great religious literature:
The Bible (Old and New Testament)
The Gnostic Gospels in their entirety
Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita
Tao Te Ching and other core Daoist Texts
Indigenous American mythologies (Mayan, Aztec, Kogi, Inca, etc.)
everything by Hehaka Sapa/Nicholas Black Elk
teachings of the Buddha + Tantric Buddhist texts
Indigenous African cosmologies across the continent
likewise for Aboriginal Australian myths, the "Dreamtime"
Whole Earth Catalog
The Sun magazine up for it's first 15 years or so
Parabola Magazine (real gem there)
a lot by Ursula K. LeGuin. Her "Always Coming Home" is an epic vision of the good and the bad that is possible in some future scenarios.
Wendell Berry once again, his essays.
Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier's Edible Forest Gardens and Carbon Farming books, and the Good Lord willing the Coppice Agroforestry book if Jacke ever finishes it (come on, Dave!)
Martin Crawford's work on Agroforestry
The Book of the Hopi, Hopi Survival Kit, etc.
Myths and Legends of the Cherokee by James Mooney (biased about this, because I'm a native of Southern Appalachia the longtime- 10,000 years possibly- and present day stomping grounds of the Cherokee people, and Mooney was lucky to get an almost complete cosmology from them in the late 19th century when they had intact knowledge of who they were and where they came from)
ANYTHING about Coppicing
ANYTHING about Dehesas and/or Montados Agriculture
Farmers for Forty Centuries by F.H. King
Farming/Agricultural texts by the Shakers, Amish/Mennonites/other Anabaptists?
Always incomplete, but a decent start there.