The Most Important Book I’ve Ever Read (And it’s not even a “book.”)

When I was 17 or 18 years old, I purchased an early edition (not the first, which was published in 1968, but a later edition published in 1971) of the Whole Earth Catalog, edited by Stewart Brand.

The magazine’s stated purpose was this:

We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory – as via government, big business, formal education, church – has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing – power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the Whole Earth Catalog.

In other words, by the time we got to Woodstock, it was obvious that many of the promises that had been made to early Baby Boomers and their parents (who’d already lived through a second World War), coming out of the white bread 1950s, were nothing but baloney sandwiches. Corporations and governments were beyond corrupt; schools STILL seem reluctant to change a system that is more than a century old; and don’t get me started on the shifty people who manage to get themselves put in charge of collecting donations and are uniquely trusted to deposit them into the Religious Establishment’s proper accounts.

According to Wikipedia, curator extraordinaire Brand adopted a broad definition of the word ‘tools’ to include “books, maps, professional journals, courses, and classes. There were well-designed special-purpose utensils, including garden tools, carpenters’ and masons’ tools, welding equipment, chainsaws, fiberglass materials, tents, hiking shoes, and potters’ wheels. There were even early synthesizers and personal computers.”

Perhaps part of my interest in this diverse collection of resources was due to the job I’d had for a few years, working at a rental company. Still in my teens, I found myself explaining to a wide range of adult customers how all sorts of equipment was operated and maintained. Party goods, tables and chairs, hospital equipment, lawn and garden maintenance equipment (ever try to put a full-sized rototiller into the boot of a Volkswagen?), floor sanding and carpet cleaning machinery, drills, pumps, electric hammers – you name it, we rented it, and I was able to explain to you how to use it properly and return it in the same condition in which it left. As if.

Anyway, the Whole Earth Catalog was more than a book of resources. It was a way of looking at creating a life that was sustainable and useful. A life where one’s skills and talents might support the greater good and somehow be fully appreciated. Brand’s editorial style effused a holistic approach to the ecology, alternative education, DIY cultures, and self-sufficiency. Long before Google and when even the local public library might be lacking in these types of alternative publications, the WEC offered easy access to achieving this utopian lifestyle.

One of the most influential people I encountered via the WEC is R. Buckminster Fuller. It didn’t take very long for me to become a fan of his geodesic domes and “Spaceship Earth” philosophies. I could only try to imagine the arc of his life and experience in my hometown of Chicago 40 years earlier when, at age 32, Fuller lost his job as president of a building company, began to drank heavily to mask depression, and contemplated drowning in Lake Michigan so that his family might benefit from a life insurance payment.

Seems like used copies of those original WEC issues are selling for many times their original price (issues published before 1980 varied in cost from $1 to $6). Remember, though, Brand was asking people the PAY for a CATALOG at a time when the dynamic was for retailers to give catalogs away in expectation of future sales. Another bit of foreshadowing sea change in the culture.

But if you see one in a yard sale this summer, pick it up and look it over.


Published by billpaige

Interested parties are first directed to my memoir, “Everything I Know I Learned From Rock Stars” (Eckhartz Press). While I have taken music therapy classes and read extensively about music’s effect on the brain, I am NOT professionally trained -- just a music lover who recognizes that everyone benefits from music. Giving that gift to special needs youth is highly rewarding, but again, my process is intuitive, not academic. I draw largely on personal experience. I’ve spent most of my 67 years observing a wide world of music, from working as a music critic professionally for 20 years, and holding positions in music companies in the 1970s and 1990s. Since 1990, however, I have focused on learning more about music and improving as a singer, guitarist, and performer, both solo and in ensemble settings.

2 thoughts on “The Most Important Book I’ve Ever Read (And it’s not even a “book.”)

  1. hard to overestimate the power of The Whole Earth catalog as an influence on my education and my sense of shared American culture with my peers. good stuff, Bill.

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