ReBuilding the Future
Syntopical Reading - 500 Book List
Set One of Ten
Return to Index
I have been maintaining a list of 500 books ever since 1975 when I first delievered my ReBuilding the Future course in Kansas city. The intented use of these books is based on Mortimor Adler’s concept of syntopical reading as described in How To Read a Book, one of the books in Set Two of this listing.
The list has evolved over the years however its intent has remained the same: to constitute the minimum reading that provides a comprehensive overview of the bodies of knowledge necessary for living well in today’s and the near future world. This list is therefore tied closely to the Curriculum For the 21st Century [link] and they can be used as a general introduction to the many bodies of knowledge that make up this curriculum.
I am updating the list now (starting October 2003) for several reasons: first, in preparation of offering the course again, a quarter of a century later, to look at - as we did then - the challenges of the next quarter century [link]; to document my own study as I near the end of this cycle of autobiographical writing [link]; third, to formulate a core library for the many environments we now have under development [link] [link]; and fourth, to provide a direct pathway to those thinkers and their work whom I believe we should be paying closer attention to as we face what is before us.
Warning, this is a syntopical conversation. Not all these authors agree with one another nor do they promote even a generally singular point of view. The purpose here is not to prove something or to promote something - it is to think about a number of intertwined, complex issues facing humanity; issues we have to solve if we are to survive and remain human. I do not agree with everything written in these books; however, I have found these authors challenging, engaging, informative and sometimes pleasing. I have found their work useful.
Why did I use david Brin’s book for the masthead of this first Set? Because he treats one of the seminal issues of our time which is the tug and pull between the ubiquity and use of information and privacy. He does it in an uncommonly comprehensive and evenhanded way and with the clear intent of facilitating an intelligent dialog on this subject. This is rare in our world of spin, distortion and propaganda. As such, David demonstrates the spirit of my web site [link] and the intent of this book list.
I have read everyone of these books, some many times, and used them in my life and work. This is not some abstract list. Each of these books is included because they offer multiple levels of information and insight about more than one subject. They tell a story. They tell our story and, in them, there is a seed - promise of a future. When I read, I emerge myself in the material and the viewpoint of the author. For awhile, I become a “true believer.” After I have absorbed this view of the world from the inside, I then employ critical thinking to the extent that it seems necessary. In the first reading, I ask myself: “if this is true, what are the implications?” I am a designer and I take on information from the viewpoint of how it makes me more able to design and build useful systems and artifacts [link].
These books are not the last word on their subject nor are they necessarily the most recent and up to date on their subject. Sometimes the first take on a subject has a life that later work does not even if the more mature reflection is the more accurate. Sometimes a work is provocative and even if questionable in some respects still serves best the purpose of stimulating thought. At any extent they are the ones that informed my thinking at various moments of my life. And, of course, being part of a list of only 500 means that they are not the only ones that have - they constitute only a fraction of my reading. I have built, lost, rebuilt and lost again many libraries in a lifetime of migrations. They are, however, survivors - they are the ones I choose to remember in regards this task of re-conceptualizing what the future might be. These books are the ones that surround my workspace - they are only a few paces away from my desks. The list has changed over the years and it will continue to change - as I do; as new ideas emerge; as the challenges we face change; as Rebuilding the Future changes.
The reading list is divided into 10 sets of 50 books. Each set, alone, makes an interesting reading assignment, synoptically. While each of the these books deserve many hours of careful attention, any one can be be grasped in about one hour using the methods that Mortimer Adler recommends in How To Read A Book. This means that each set can be easily absorbed in a month and the entire list within a year. If the past is a guide, I will replace about 10 to 15 percent of these books with new ones which, of course, I will have to read. I will have to review the entire lot. So, remaking this list will take me several months. This follows my practice of never recommending reading to someone unless I review it at the time - the “me” who read it before is not the me who is making the recommendation today [link].
It is far better to read these books synoptically than as individual works - at least in the beginning. It is the dialog between the authors and their subjects - and, of course, with you, that makes the experience worth doing. There are techniques for doing this with others that we use in the ReBuilding the Future Course, in workshops and DesignShops that can easily be done in the office or home [link]. These methods greatly expand the quality of the experience and ground the learning process by connecting the content to issues of immediate interest and the ideas that are important in your immediate community.
Beyond this first introduction and reading, however, it is my hope that many of the books will become your long term companions and a constant source of simulation and self-challenge - as they have mine. And, I hope that they lead you other materials that prompt you to make up your own set of intellectual companions.
Just as these books are best read together, active reading on your part is a requirement as is the practice of keeping a journal. This discipline facilitates your engagement with the authors in a mutual journey of discovery. It is the discovery that is important not the static “knowledge” within the pages. Books are social artifacts; they are seeds of thought; they are a gift from one to the future; they carry within far more than those who created them can ever know. A book can sit dormant on a shelf for decades then, one evening, spark a life into action. Whatever our failures of the moment, it is our collective knowledge that makes it possible for fresh minds to rethink, reinvent and recreate our reality. We have the ability to make life a quest [link]; the ability to change our reality almost at will. We seem, today, to be drifting towards a future that few want. Yet, we have the capability to design, heuristically, a new economy/ecology/society. These 500 books just scratch the surface of the body of knowledge collected by humankind. Reading them is not a passive exercise in bookish contemplation - it is a call to action [link: a rate of change weekend].
The basic mechanics of architecture are demonstrated in this book using examples from several thousand years of built work. A basic primer of architecture beautifully drawn by hand. The common graphic language of the book displays the world’s architecture as a continuum.
The Art of Memory describes the many techniques that humanity has employed to remember. These are alien to our world of instant information and the Internet - I wonder. Have we lost something essential to our cognitive development? What if the old ways, born of necessity, were combined with the new augmentation tools? Will we let technology shape our mental processes without thought?
Like many aspects of modern life, travel has become a commodity. It used to be a quest, a necessary component of education and an art. We must return to pilgrimage as an essential aspect of the whole life.
This book is too often misquoted. It could be titled the art of peace. It is one of the great works on strategy in general and can be regarded as providing wise council for a great variety of situations.
The classic guide to the practice of keeping a personal journal - a critical tool and practice in the development of the self-aware life [link]. It is interesting to think of this in relationship to Jaynes [link] theory of the origin of consciousness.
The story of a social experiment of far reaching consequences and unexpected outcomes. This is an example of a deliberate social change that did “bite back” [link].
How does Nature solve the problem? Nature does some amazing materials engineering with strengths far in excess of human efforts - and does it at room temperature. What if nature’s performance and means became the standards of human engineering? What might we achieve?
We all know that Captain Bligh was the bad guy. It turns out that there was some revisionist history practiced to project certain family’s reputations. Bligh, who schooled under James Cook, was in fact a skillful and liberal commander. What is it we really know about the people we read about?
The world’s largest masonry dome was erected by the genius of one man and the perseverance of a city that stayed the course through war, famine, plague and economic change. This is the story of invention, social process and the creation of an unique work. Can we match this performance today?
Jacobs argues that cites are the fountainhead of wealth creation.
The great cities of the past flowered and then fell victim to the same excesses - we seem to be following the same patterns today. The story of the city is the story of civilization, and if present trends continue, the future history of the planet. Politics, economics, culture, art. technology and architecture cannot be divorced.
Olmsted was a public man in the sense we have few, if any, today. His was an experience that ranged across half of the 19th Century into the 20th. His practice existed into the 1950s.
This book is upsetting and it may upset you in a variety of ways - I hope it does. It cuts to the core of what makes up our modern society. This is an honest book that take honest reading - both are rare. We have to face the charges of this book and we have to redeem our human record - else humanity, as we like to think of it, is lost.
Understanding emergent phenomena is the task before us. Our challenges are systemic and complex - they do not succumb to simple linier thinking and action based on force alone.
It takes an unusual set of circumstances to give rise to a building like Falligwater. A great architect, unusually perceptive clients and a particular social circumstance.
The story of one of the great expeditions of all time. China systematically mapped the world two generations before Columbus and then turned its back on its own achievement. What would history have been if they had not? What does this reveal about the history we have been told?
I do not know if the theory of this book will hold up. And, the system presented seems complex to me. However, it makes a compelling read and presents a lurking question: what if this pattern was to repeat itself one more time? Are there large cycles that impact us, as a cilvilization? What what are they? How do we respond?
I think that something must be right in a society where a book like this can win the Pulitzer. Mathematics, art and music are explored, in the works of three men, to sense out the nature of thought and mind. This book is an intellectual feast and tour de force. The play of mind to create useful insight.
The story of a great architect.
I first read this book in December 2000 after my first return to Taliesin [link] in 42 years just prior to my first session as a World Economic Forum Fellow [link]. Rothenberg’s book was the intellectual meat between the two pieces of bread. He gets at the root of technology and our relationship to it.
Eiseley brings poetry to science and science to poetry - all the while asking provocative questions. Questions that make you think - not questions that can ever be answered. This book puts the human experience into perspective - a perspective much needed in this world of the immediate and short term gratification.
Cities are great centers of learning and creativity. They are generators of social wealth. They also draw on the resources of the countryside around them - human and ecological. They emerge in time and express this time by their unique social character and make up.
Understanding the dynamics of networks may be the single most important social survival skill for individuals and organizations in the immediate future. Network architecture can be found in the human brain, in social groups, in organizations and markets. These are all recursion levels of what is essentially the sam phenomena.
This is the story of invention and how society treats innovators.
Is what passes for Capitalism today the full measure of what it is and can be? If so, this would be a sad thing.
Craft is the basis of all useful human effort. We have allowed modern tools to obscure this fact. In removing craft from our lives, we remove life from our work and turn it into a sterile end for the sole (or soulless) purpose of income. In doing so, we destroy far more than we know.
How did consciousness emerge? Here is one radical model that has caused a great deal of controversy and leads to many questions - a few of the most interesting of which are: what was individual experience like before self-awareness? What role does consciousness play in modern society and to what degree do we actually have it today?
A book about the pattern language of architecture that has broad applicability to any field.
What is involved in making a pencil and how has this tool impacted our technology and social life? Petroski tells a compelling story that goes back longer in history than you might suppose. In doing so, he reveals important relationships between, discovery, invention, tooling, economics and social feedback - even ecological impacts.
Making habitat is a primary act of living. Our places of living and work have become a commodity to be bought and sold not an environment to live and prosper in. Day outlines the elements that can make this different.
We have our head in the sand and, as a species, we are committing suicide; Lester Brown has an alternative. You may agree with him or not about the best road forward however the assessment of the situation is less arguable. We already pay two to three times for drinking water than for fuel; when will it be a major cause of war as oil is today?
We are losing our architectural heritage at an alarming rate. Not important? Tung shows what we are losing, how much is gone and the consequences of losing it. It is interesting to note that the loss of our architecture follows the same pattern as the loss of our ecological capital - in this, at least, the two are integrated.
If life ever seems dull and you are in a bad mood, there is always this book which reintroduces its mystery and magic by describing seven basic principles/processes that make up life. Philosophy, science and art combine to weave a story that reintroduces us to that quality which we process and too often take for granted.
In describing agents and agency, Minski proposes that mind is composed of many simple functions that combine to make complex results. This is a “bottoms up” view of intelligence. I suspect his ideas may scale and relate to how groups and societies function not just individual minds. If so, this is an exciting way to look at the subject.
For 10,000 years, streets were for people. they were the great armature of the city - a place for gathering and celebration as well as transportation. The miss-application of the automobile now leaves us with cities that have lost their amenity and landscape. Asphalt and noise stands unchallenged. Must this be so?
If we need anything, today, we need a transparent society. Brin’s concept of “reciprocal transparency” may be key to solving the number of conflicts caused by the clash of technology enabled access, privacy and the uses of information. His book frames an important debate that we seem to be avoiding even as we makes the decisions that will determine our experience of autonomy and anonymity.
Bucky was one of the few, in the 20th Century, that took the broad long view and also acted to make practical inventions and environments designed to directly improve upon the conditions he articulated in his speeches and writings. This book is an excellent overview to Bucky the philosopher and Bucky the engineer.
These books span the entire time of human history. They were written over a brief span of about 60 years - 19xx to 20xx. Even with careful scholarship, the view of the past is from our present context. These books constitute 50 snap shots of the human story, our relationship to one another and to the planet of which we are a part. Each of the authors has a distinct point of view and, and individually, something important to say. As a set, however, an entirely different level of dialog emerges. You will note that, although many specific issues in these books are being argued, the dialog that emerges in this reading, synoptically, is remarkably absent from our currant social discourse. The broad perspective offered by these authors, together, is missing from the prevailing point of view. We are left, today in our social “dialog,” with isolated skirmishes, spin - the competition of short term and narrow interests. How do we navigate the future under these circumstances? What and who are we as a species? How do we make habitat? How do we create and maintain social fairness, equity, individual prosperity and freedom and planetary diversity, sustainability and adequate future options? What is the human enterprise?
Is how we think of ourselves and describe ourselves, and try to re-make ourselves, actually congruent in regards how we, in reality, behave? Are we fighting our own nature and deflecting ourselves from our own path? Are the default assumptions of our society serving us and life on this planet? Are the choices what we think they are? Are we getting a future by design - or default? Is it the one you want? What is knowledge and how is it gained? These are but a few of the questions you may want to engage these authors in.
Return To INDEX
Return To RBTF Syntopical Index
Matt Taylor
October 26, 2003


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posted: October 26, 2003

revised: August 22, 2004
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(note: this document is about 85% finished)

Copyright© Matt Taylor 2003, 2004



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