Caroline Maniaque-Benton and Meredith Gaglio, eds. Whole Earth Field Guide

Caroline Maniaque-Benton and Meredith Gaglio, eds. Whole Earth Field Guide. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016. xii, 107p., ill. ISBN 9780262529280. US $34.95.

The Whole Earth Field Guide is a heavily illustrated, welcome contribution to the study of the remarkable multiyear enterprise which began humbly in 1968. This book aims “to introduce the reader to the intellectual world to which the Catalog opened a door,” and it looks exclusively to the National Book Award-winning Last Whole Earth Catalog (1971) to do so (ix). The Last Whole Earth Catalog described itself as a book that provided “access to tools,” which founder Stewart Brand hoped would help his friends starting communes, or – in his words – “civilizations hither and yon in the sticks” (Last Whole Earth Catalog, 439). Books were tools, and the Catalog is first and foremost a self-produced and carefully edited annotated bibliography that covers everything from cybernetics to macramé.

Editors Caroline Maniaque-Benton and Meredith Gaglio organized the Field Guide following the Catalog’s classification scheme. Chapters on Understanding Whole Systems, Land Use, Shelter, Industry, Craft, Community, Nomadics, Communications, and Learning appear with brief introductions that helpfully summarize and contextualize what Brand and his collaborators included in each category. The bulk of the Field Guide consists of excerpts from the books listed in the Last Whole Earth Catalog, accompanied by complete bibliographical details, suggestions for further reading, and short, contextualizing summaries by one of the editors. Because the Whole Earth Catalog took on an enormous scope of material from the beginning, these entries will serve as first footholds in new territory for both experienced scholars and newcomers alike, with the well-chosen suggestions for further reading lighting the trail ahead.

The Field Guide’s 52-page introduction aims to “shed light on material aspects of The Last Whole Earth Catalog (1971) – its modes of production and behind-the-scenes debates – and to better understand the intention of its protagonists” (1). While it succeeds in refocusing study of Brand and the Catalog beyond the narrow areas covered by Fred Turner (2006) and Andrew K. Kirk (2007) in their studies of the book and its influences on digital culture and environmentalism, the piece does not fulfil its promise. Maniaque-Benton is an architectural historian, and her text betrays unfamiliarity with the history of printing, publishing, and reading and the questions that guide studies of the material aspects of books. For example, she emphasizes Brand’s military training as the driving force behind his “tightly controlled system” for managing catalog production, citing Brand’s description of his work in his essential “How to do a Whole Earth Catalog” (435-441 in the Last Whole Earth Catalog) and a text on behavioral psychology. Anyone who has studied the business of printing and publishing, however, would recognize in Brand’s collaboratively-written guide the workflows and ways of thinking typical of a print shop. At the start of the project, Brand surely studied the nuts and bolts of bookmaking – enough to review on the topic in the Catalog (363) – and although military training obviously impacted his leadership style, it does not explain his know-how as a bookmaker. Misinterpretations like these litter the introduction, which also suffers from a lack of insight that could have been provided by interviews with the people who worked on the Catalog, most of whom are still living. The role of Lois Brand is briefly emphasized, but never illuminated. Problems of style and organization could have also been improved by more careful editing by MIT Press.

Despite its shortcomings, the introduction provides tantalizing new details about Brand resulting from a meticulous study of his archive at Stanford. Of tremendous importance is the bibliographical Appendix, which lists every book in the Last Whole Earth Catalog with complete and edition specific bibliographical information. The Whole Earth Field Guide is the first book to provide a succinct general introduction to this long-running and hugely influential twentieth-century publication, and it will be well used by an interdisciplinary audience as the book to turn to after encountering the Catalog itself.

Erin Schreiner
Independent Scholar