When I was 15 years old, I decided that I wanted to try marijuana. It took me a while, but I eventually scored some from a high schooler and went to a friend's house to smoke it. His brother was away at college and allegedly had rolling papers in his room. We needed something to clean the pot on, too, and his brother conveniently had a large book, a floppy, unwieldy beast called The Last Whole Earth Catalog. As I hunched over this mysterious artifact, picking out seeds and stems while scanning the oversized pages, for the first time, I encountered names like Buckminster Fuller, Gregory Bateson, Stewart Brand, and concepts like systems thinking, nomadics, geodesic domes, and countless domains of DIY. I was completely enthralled. We managed to roll a sad-looking, lumpy joint and smoked it, but I was more interested in the book than the dope. When we were done, I asked him if I could trade my nickel bag ($5-worth) for the catalog (which had a big $5 price tag, printed in big Cooper Black type, right on the cover). He said his brother hadn't seemed tremendously interested and probably wouldn't miss it. We made the trade. I didn't know it at the time, but in that transaction, I had just set foot on the path that leads directly to today. My lifelong work in DIY media, tech, and culture (I lived in communes for nearly 20 years) can all be traced directly back to this copy of the catalog and all those that followed. I even had the honor of being a contributor to The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog in 1994.
The Whole Earth Field Guide, new from MIT Press, attempts to bring some of the genius that inspired me and so many others in the 60s and 70s to a new generation of Spaceship Earth crew members and to anyone interested in counter-cultural history (a speciality of the author). This is not a facsimile or best-of The Last Whole Earth Catalog (the edition the book focuses on). As the name implies, this is a guide to understanding the world that the catalog was attempting to map and build. But that understanding is meant to come from the carefully-curated excerpts offered. The author doesn't attempt to situate The Whole Earth Catalog in the wider counter-culture landscape of the time. As much as possible, she lets the material speak for itself.
My favorite section of the Whole Earth Field Guide is the first 52 pages which serve as an introduction to The Whole Earth Catalog, editor and instigator Stewart Brand, and to the process by which the catalogs were put together. Every edition of the catalog always had a few behind-the-scenes pages in the back, sometimes with photos of the layout and production process. I always looked forward to those the most. This section feels like a lengthy, meta version of that.
The bulk of the Whole Earth Field Guide is comprised of introductions to the iconic sections of the catalog (Understanding Whole Systems, Shelter, Land Use, Community), explaining the overarching ideas and philosophies behind each, excerpts from particularly potent (some now famous) essays found in LWEC, and illustration-excerpts. This book really is an introduction to the Whole Earth philosophy, as it was patched together in the essays, book reviews, and book excerpts that made up the bulk of the catalog. Reading the Whole Earth Field Guide, you really get a sense for how these powerful and timely ideas, presented in this unique format, helped shape many aspects of our modern world (never forget that one of the first significant settlements in cyberspace, The Well, was a computer bulletin board on a mini-computer in a closet of the Whole Earth offices in Sausalito, CA).
Seminal essays and ideas from the iconic DIY catalog of catalogs
Whole Earth Field Guide
by Caroline Maniaque-Benton (Editor), Meredith Gaglio (Contributor)
The MIT Press
2016, 288 pages, 8.0 x 0.6 x 10.5 inches, Paperback
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