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.