A Mad Anthropologist’s Book Collection

1. A Far From Serious Thought Experiment

Shaft into Cold War bunker; photo by Tom Blackwell at flic.kr/p/71UJKc.

Shaft into Cold War bunker; photo by Tom Blackwell at flic.kr/p/71UJKc.

Imagine that humans have learned to colonize other planets, but once people have arrived at their colony it is unlikely that they, or their descendants for quite a few generations, will get to leave. Or imagine that the earth has been stripped of resources and humans are beginning to launch space stations on which they can survive. Or imagine that, in anticipation of nuclear war, people are building and moving into underground vaults. The specifics don’t matter—what does matter is that some people live in small, isolated, pre-planned communities. More importantly, imagine that the people who planned these communities decided it was a good opportunity to do some unethical experimental social science, as in a certain computer game.

The social scientists constructed libraries for each colony (or station, or vault); about 2 000 volumes represent the entire cultural legacy for each community. The vast majority of these volumes are identical across communities, but they have made careful adjustments to a randomly-selected sample of libraries. For instance, while most libraries contain J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and derivative works, a few stations (or vaults, or colonies) have L. F. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and derivative works in their place. A few vaults (or etc.) have been carefully combed over to remove any work by or reference to William Shakespeare. In others, it is William Wordsworth who has been so excised. Perhaps a few libraries have more radical changes—one has no works authored exclusively by men, or by white people, and another has only works written by people who went, or are rumoured to have gone, blind. These more radical changes are really just an indulgence, I guess; it is not the best experiment design, to change so much.

The social scientists conducting this experiment have either contrived a way to monitor the colonies (or etc.) and their literary output, or are hoping that anthropologists of the future will eventually collect the relevant data. Either way, the intention is to see whether and how the cultural output of these stations changes according the changes made to their libraries. One thing that might be considered is whether these changes to the libraries matter more or less, statistically speaking, than the major events in the colony—does it matter more, to literary output, whether they had or did not have Shakespeare, or does it matter more whether they had or did not have a significant outbreak of disease? Or in what way does each matter? This might also be an opportunity to learn how important the idiosyncrasies of particular talented individuals turn out to be. It is also, of course, an opportunity to learn how much literary output affects politics and the wider culture.

As a thought experiment, and an especially outlandish one, this is going to be hard to answer. The fact that we do not have such isolated, pre-built communities to play with means that we can’t determine the answers to these questions empirically (and possibly explains why mad anthropology is not so popular a trope as mad science). Still, it is interesting to consider. I did start writing a short story centred around the Tolkien/Baum scenario, but it did not wind up going anywhere interesting. I think the hardest possibility for me to imagine is an English language canon absent Shakespeare; whatever you think about his merits, Shakespeare is the quintessential canonical author in the English literary tradition.

2. A Somewhat More Serious Intellectual Exercise

Imagine that you have been contracted to contribute to the library of the colonies (or vaults, or stations) described in Part 1. You have been allotted twenty titles; you have been informed that there are going to be… let’s say 19 other individuals chosen to submit their own twenty titles. Someone else has been tasked with supplying the medical bay with medical texts; another person is supplying the classrooms with textbooks ranging from the elementary school to the introductory undergraduate level; another person is supplying the engineering department with physics and chemistry materials; and so on. Your mandate is to cover what could be broadly called written culture: histories, philosophy, fiction, poetry, drama, theology, and so on. (Other people are building a music library, a film library, a games library, and an art gallery.) You are given nearly complete freedom: if you want to use all twenty titles on advanced mathematics, you are allowed to do so. However, you are only allowed five anthologies, posthumous collections, and so on. The rest have to be novels, or single non-fiction books, or collections of poetry or short stories as originally published. Assume that, if you and the other contributors have submitted overlapping titles, the administrators will contact one or more of you to submit more titles to replace the repeats.

There might be mad anthropologists who will “edit” the collections afterwards, but you know nothing of it.

So what twenty titles would you submit? Remember, we’re talking about the seeds of a culture. The libraries that you and the others build are all the vault-dwellers will have in order to begin building their own new society. You are not building this alone, so you do not need to panic about your submissions being somehow complete or adequate. Rather, ask yourself this: what would you absolutely want in that library?

I have tried this exercise myself, of course, and I find it quite difficult. It seems impossible to avoid missing something. I might share my own list (once I finalize it!), but I wanted to give readers a chance to make their lists without my own submission biasing them. And please, send me a list or leave it in the comments! If I get 19 or more, I’ll publish them and my own titles as here as a head-canon space station literary canon.

3 thoughts on “A Mad Anthropologist’s Book Collection

  1. A friend on Facebook has pointed out that Part 1 would depend on how the library was presented to the inhabitants: any explanation of the curation guidelines, whether honest or not, might have an impact on their relationship with it. For instance, were they told that these were the best works that the previous society had on offer? That might create some… interesting ideas about the world they came from.

    Which reminded me that one thing you could not control for in this study would be the inhabitants’ own memories.


  2. Two books immediately spring to mind:
    The Once and Future King by T.H. White, because on top of being a good story, it is an excellent examination of what does and does not make a good leader.
    The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, because it reminds us how to look at the world with wonder. This book is so crucial to my wellbeing that I keep a copy at work.


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