It’s the end of the world, and somehow you and your Kindle have survived.
Alone in your radiation-proof underground bunker, surrounded by canned foodstuffs, ammunition, and your trusty Crovel Extreme (a combination crowbar and shovel tool), you browse your virtual library. Would its contents be enough to sustain you for the rest of your life? Could these books provide a guide for rebuilding civilisation?
The post-apocalyptic library makes for a compelling mental exercise: a literary survival kit, prepared in addition to the duct tape, water purifying tablets, and swiss army knives which comprise the standard “bug-out bag” (“bug-out” is an adapted army term, meaning “to leave quickly” and go underground or on the run during an apocalypse).
Though “preppers” are most often associated with IRL survival skills rather than prepping through technology, the idea is nonetheless entertained within the community. Blog posts detail how to create a “bug-out” flash drive, virtual prepper libraries are compared on survival subreddits, free ebook collections are distributed within the community, and USBs loaded with homesteading and survival skill PDFs are sold as “Emergency Digital” on eBay.
Were I to spend the rest of my life with only a few books, I think I’d go for the classical texts. An Odyssey or Iliad perhaps, and maybe Infinite Jest (because I might finally have time to finish it). Some dystopian fiction might work, given the circumstances, though I’d steer clear of The Road for morale-preserving purposes. Some might opt to stockpile porn, but its effects might be ruined slightly by the knowledge that the actors had long since been nuked, or eaten by zombies.
Author and astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell has his own take on the “bug-out library”. His book, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch, attempts to cover every skill you might need in a post-apocalyptic world: from the basics, such as how to start a fire and build a shelter, to how to reconstruct innovations like radios and medicine from materials found in the home. Dartnell considers the merits of a digital survival kit too, rather than purely advocating Bear Grylls-style survivalism. Technology might yet have a place in our apocalypse.
“If you wanted to take the apocalypse seriously, which I don’t think you should,” Dartnell assures me, “you could make yourself a post-apocalyptic library, and have thousands of Kindle books in the palm of your hand, and power it with a solar panel when the grid goes down. It would give you a fair shot at rebuilding everything from scratch. Knowledge is power, after all.”
I’m speaking to Dartnell over Skype. The transmission is patchy—I presume because he is speaking from an underground bunker somewhere, but he says otherwise. Though his work as an author might imply it, Dartnell is no apocalypse prepper.
Currently a research fellow with the UK Space Agency at the University of Leicester, he doesn’t believe the apocalypse will happen in our lifetime. His book is meant as a thought experiment, though not all its readers see it that way. Dartnell has been criticised for not having included enough passages about guns, as well as for the perceived folly of publishing his book in Kindle edition, a format apparently doomed to die out when the power grids fail due to solar flares, or nuclear warfare causes electromagnetic pulses to destroy the Earth’s technology.
There’s the obvious trade-off: You can load up a lifetime of reading material, but the device might break.
The digital side of prepping is rife with contradictions and curious leaps of faith: how would our hardware and the internet survive an asteroid, or tidal wave, or thermonuclear catastrophe? Much of the content saved by preppers dates from a time long before Project Gutenberg. “There are people who curate these big online databases of free texts,” says Dartnell. “Anything out of the public domain. They’re usually books on permaculture, homesteading, tool-making or blacksmithing, written in the 50s and 60s. People will have scanned them onto microfiche, which has in turn been scanned to digital as PDFs. You can download four megabytes in one go.”
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