What Books Do We Need to Rewrite All of Human History?

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The Long Now Foundation, a society devoted to human flourishing on a millennial timescale,  has started a project named the “Manual for Civilization.” The idea behind the Manual is not unlike that of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a seed bank built deep beneath the ice of a remote Norwegian island that aims to serve as a reserve for other seed banks whose seed stores may be damaged by accidents, funding cuts, civil strife, or more romantically, a global catastrophe that threatens all of human civilization. Where the Svalbard Seed Vault stores seeds, the Manual for Civilizations will store books. Quite specifically:

“3,500 volumes in a floor-to-ceiling library featuring carefully selected books that could be used to help restart civilization [in the event that ‘civilization’ failed]” [1]

Over the last few months prominent members and associates of the Long Now Foundation have published lists of some of the books they would like to see in the library. The majority of these lists have absolutely no relation to the Manual’s stated mission. They are dominated by works of literature, history, and popular science of a very recent vintage–all in all books more useful for reconstructing the ideologies of the contributors than for reconstructing civilization. [2] Civilization is not built on creativity alone; were humanity in such bad shape that it needed to unearth a 3,500 volume library to find its way back to the light it would be in desperate need of a library compiled with a different set of guiding priorities.

Yet the compilation of all these books poses an interesting question. What would the future survivors of apocalypse understand of human history and of the society which left these volumes behind? Would they be able to reconstruct the history of mankind, or would the narrative of human civilization be completely lost from their view? What primary sources would a future Edward Gibbon need to write a History of the Decline and Fall of Human Civilization?

The question is a fun one, so I thought I would try my hand at making a list of the essential narrative sources our knowledge of human history is built upon. These sources are not meant to be the sole record or historical analysis available to the post-apocalyptic era. For the sake of the social scientists of mankind’s second age, a proper catalog of human history should devote as many volumes to archaeology, ethnography, linguistics, and dry tomes of historical statistics as it does to historical narrative. Likewise, a hundred or so works written by modern writers deserve to be on the list so that knowledge gained from documentary sources too scattered, fragmentary, or otherwise inconsequential may be preserved for future generations.


 Multiple Authors (32nd-7th centuries BC),, trans. and compiled by James Henry Brested, Ancient Records of Egypt, 5 vol
 Multiple Authors (28th-8th centuries BC), various translators and compilers, Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Project, 7 vols
Multiple Authors (8th-6th centuries BC), various translators and compilers, Royal Inscriptions of Neo-Assyrian Period Project, 4 vols

Author unknown (3rd [?] century BC), Zuo Zhuan Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals
Author unknown (3rd century BC), Stratagems of the Warring States 
Multiple Authors (2nd century BC-15th century AD), 24 Dynastic Histories
Faxian (5th century), A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms,
Bianji (9th century), Great Tang Records on Western Regions 
Sima Guang (11th century), Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Governance, collected memorials
Wang Anshi (11th century), collected memorials
 Zhou Daguan (12th century), The Customs of Cambodia
The Kangxi Emperor (17th-18th centuries), collected letters and proclamations

Le Van Hu’u (13th century), Annals of Dai Viet
Ngo Si Lien, et. al (15th-17th centuries), Complete Annals of Da Viet
Mpu Prapance (14th century), Nagarajretagam 
Various Authors (14th?-18th centuries), Chronicle of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya 

Multiple Authors (8th-9th centuries AD), The Six National Histories [Rikokuku]
Multiple Authors (11th-14th centuries), The Four Mirrors
Author unknown  (12th century), The Tale of Splendor
Authorship disputed (12th century), Tale of the Heike
Jien (14th century), The Gukansho
Kitabatake Chikafusa (14th century), Chronicles of the Authentic Lineages of the Divine Emperors
Attributed.to Humro Tokinaga (14th century), The Tale of Heiji 
Author Unknown (14th century), The Tale of Hogen
Attributed to Kojima (15th century), History of Great Peace [Taiheke]
Oze Hoan, Taikoki (17th century)
Ota Gyuichi, Schinsho Koki (17th century)

Kim Busik (12th century), Chronicle of Three Kingdoms [Samguk Saki]
Multiple Authors (14th century), History of Goryeo [Goryeosa]
Yu Sung-ryong (16th century), The Book of Corrections
Multiple Authors (14th-19th century), True Record of the Joeson Dynasty

Herodotus (5th century BC), The Histories
Thucydides (4th century BC) , The Peloponnese War
Xenophon (4th century BC), Hellenika, Anabasis
Demosthones (3rd century. BC), collected speeches
Arrian (3rd century BC), Anabasis of Alexander, Indica
Polybius (1st century BC), Histories

Cicero (1st century BC), collected speeches
Julius Caesar (1st century BC), The Gallic Wars, The Civil Wars
Livy (1st century AD), History of Rome
Josephus (2nd century AD), Antiquities of the Jews, The Jewish Wars
Tacitus (2nd century), Histories, Annals, Agricola and Germanica
Appian (2nd century), Roman History
Suetonius (3rd century), The Twelve Caesars
Plutarch (3rd century), Lives
Eusebius (4th century), Ecclesiastical History 
Ammianus Marcellinus (5th century), Roman History, Res Gestae

Procopius (6th century), The Secret History, History of the Wars
Theophanes (9th century), Chronicle of Theophanes
Michael Psellus (11th century), The Chronographia
Anna Komnene (11th century), The Alexiad
Michael Attaleiates (11th century), The History
John Skylitzes (12th century), Synopsis of Histories
Nicetas Choniates (13th century), Historical Annals
Michael Critobulus (15th century), History of Mehmet the Conqueror 

Ali Waqidi (8th century), Book of History and Campaigns
Al Musudi (9th century), Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems
Al Tabari (10th century), History of Prophets and Kings 
 Ibn al-Qūṭiyya (10th century), History of the Conquest of Al Andalus
Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (11th century), History of Baghdad 
‘Abd Allah b. Buluggin (11th century), The Tibyan 
Ali Ibn al-Athir (12th century), The Complete History
Ibn Battuta (14th century), Rihla
Muhammed Aufi (14th century), Jami al-Hikayat 
Ibn Khaldun (14th century), Muqaddihmah, Book of Lessons, 
Mir Kvhand (15th century), Garden of Purity

Author unknown (13th century), The Secret History of the Mongols
William of Rubrick (13th century),  The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck: His Journey to the Court of the Great Khan
Rashid al-Din (14th century), The Compendium of Chronicles 
Marco Polo (14th century), Travels of Marco Polo 
Sharaf al-Din (15th century), Zafar-Nama
Ahmad ibn Arabshah (15th century), The Wonders of Destiny of the Ravages of Timur

Thera Mahanama, attr. (4th century), The Mahavasma [Great Chronicle] 
Various Authors (5th-19th century), The Culavasma [Lesser Chronicle]
Bannabatha (7th century), Acts of Harsha
Al Biruni (11th century), The Book Confirming What Pertains to India, Whether Rational or Despicable
Kalhana (12th century), Rajatarangini [River of Kings]
Ziauddin Burney (13th century), Firuz Shah’s History
Muhammed Khwandamir (15th century), Habib al-Siyar [Friend of Biographies] 
Babur the Great (16th century), Baburnama
Abdul Hamid Lahori (17th century), Padshahna
Abd al-Qadr Badauni (17th century), Bada’uni’s History 
Jahangir (17th century), Tuzuk-e-Jahangir

Sidi Ali Reis (14th century), The Mirror of Countries
Evilya Celebi (15th century), Seyahatname
Mustafa Naima (17th century), The Garden of Husayn in the Summary of the Chronicles of East and West

Gregory of Tours (6th century), History of the Franks
Gregory the Great (6th-7th centuries), collected letters
Einhard (9th century), The Life of Charlemagne 
Bede (9th century), Ecclesiastical History
Various Authors (9th-12th century?), The Anglo Saxon Chronicle 
Frutolf of Michensburg and Ekkenhard of Aura (11th-12th centuries), World Chronicle 
Author Unknown (12th century), Heimskingla
William of Tyre (12th century), History of Jerusalem
Otto of Freising (12th century), Deeds of Emperor Frederick the Great
Galbert of Bruges (12th century), The Murder of Charles the Good
James I (13th century), The Book of the Deeds of James I of Aragon
Mathew of Paris (13th century), Chronica Majorica 
Giovanni Villan (13th century), Florentine Chronicle
Jean Froissett (14th century), Chronicles 
Dietrich of Neiham (15th century), The Schism 
Fernao Lopez (15th century), Chronicle of Peter I, Chronicle of John I, Chronicle of Fernando I

Philippe de Commynes (15th century), Memories

Leonardo Bruni (15th century), History of Florentine Peoples
Joao de Barros (16th century), Decades of Asia  
Johann Wick (16th century), The Wickiana 
Pietro Bembo (16th century), History of Venice
Edward Hall (16th Century), Hall’s Chronicle 
Francesco Guicciardini (16th century), History of the Italian People
Jacques Auguste de Thou (16th-17th centuries), History of his Own Time, Memoirs
Elizabeth I (17th century), state papers
Duke de Richelieu (17th Century), Memoirs, Political Testament
Don Gaspar de Guzmán (17th century), collected memorials
Samuel Pepys (17th century), Diary
John Rushworth (17th century), Historical Collections

Various Authors (3rd century-8th century AD), Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions 
Author Unknown (14th-15th centuries), The Codex Borgia, Codex Nuthall, Codex Bodley, 
Codex Mendoza
Bernardino de Sahagún (16th century), The Florentine Codex
Juan de Betanzos (16th century), Narrative of the Incas
Pedro Cieza de Leon (16th century), Chronicle of Peru 
Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (16th century), The First New Chronicle and Good Government 

A few comments on this list.

Readers will notice that I did not include any books written after the 17th century. By the Early Modern period court annalists and national historians of the ancient type had faded away. Moreover, the last few centuries have left such an abundance of documentary evidence that it is nigh impossible to narrow down entire centuries to the words of a single grand historian. 

In some regions this problem is seen much earlier. Both medieval India and medieval Europe were places where power was decentralized and knowledge was provincial. Historical projects like the 24 Standard Histories simply were not possible in such environments, for historians lacked the means and the knowledge to write narratives that might transcend the political boundaries that divided their respective subcontinents. If the works selected for either of these time periods feel a bit arbitrary or scattered, this is the reason.

There are a few gaps worth noting. Ancient and classical India is not represented here. I explained the special challenge the Indian literary tradition poses for the historian in an earlier post:

The Rig Veda is the first voice heard in the “great conversation” of the Indic literary canon. In the 3,500 years that followed the Indic cultural tradition did more than survive: it thrived. From its humble beginnings on the Indo-Gangetic plain it spread across the entire subcontinent. By the first century BC it had spread to Southeast Asia; it provides the cultural foundation of Cambodian, Lao, Thai, Malay, and Burmese society to this day. Across dozens of languages, an even larger number of empires, hundreds of miles, and thousands of years this tradition persevered. Yet in all of those languages, miles, countries, and years it never produced a single historian! 

The Indic tradition can claim sacred hymns, epic poetry, treatise on philosophy, mathematics, grammar, and science, handbooks on art, dharma, politics, and sex, love poems and tragedies, religious devotionals and children parables – but no histories. Because of this, the most important historical sources for these societies are usually outsiders from the West or from China! Despite the wealth of literary and epigraphical material these societies produced, Megasthenes remains one of the most important primary sources for historians studying the Maurya Empire and Zhou Daguan is one of the most important sources we have for the Angkor Empire. It was not until Muslim marcher lords fought their way into India that the discipline of history took root on the subcontinent. Southeast Asia waited even longer, seeing its first indigenous historians well after their conquest by imperial European powers. [3]

In the comments section of this post Al West pointed out this is not quite true-the Sri Lankans were able historians, maintaining the religiously charged Mahavasma and Culavasma chronicles for centuries. But they are the exception that proves the rule. The glories of the Gupta and Maurya Empires, for example, are known to us only through travelers’ reports, literary allusions, and the hundreds of epigraphs and inscriptions these empires produced. If these inscriptions are all ever recorded and published in one set (i.e. a Sanskrit version of the “Royal Inscriptions of Neo-Assyrian Period Project“), they would be an ideal addition to our library. 

I also have not listed any narrative sources for Eastern Europe, Russia, or Africa. These regions are not irrelevant to the project’s aims; I simply am not familiar enough with the historiography of Africa or the Slavic lands to know which sources deserve to make the cut. 

If readers more knowledgeable than me have any suggestions please chime in the comments below. You never know, the historians of the future may depend on it. 


[1] Austin Brow, “Towards a Manual of Civilization,” Long Now Blog (14 August 2013).

[2] The exceptions is Lewis’ Dartnell’s list, one of the few that may actually come in handy if civilization were in need of a reboot. See Alexander Rose, “The Knowledge,” The Long Now Blog (19 April 2014).

[3] T. Greer, “Whence Springs a Strategic Canon?The Scholar’s Stage (9 April 2013).

Leave a Comment


Every book I've ever read on medieval Eastern Europe has cited, discussed, and argued with the Primary Chronicle. It would need to be on the list for that area I'm sure.

Al West comments on twitter:

"Pararaton – Javanese chronicle of kings. But you'd also need works from more recent times for eg Hawai'i, Ghana..

Plenty of oral traditions have useful bits in them & in many cases have only recently been written down.

P.V. Kirch has a high opinion of Hawaiian oral tradition for reconstructing earlier Hawaiian history

Also: a lot of inscriptions from India have been published. The bulk are South Indian.

There are lots of Cola inscriptions – IIRC, about 2/3 of all Indian inscriptions are from South India

And plenty from Indonesia, too – maybe de Casparis, 'Indonesian Paleography', would be a useful addition as well

According to Yellava Subbarayalu, there are 60,000 Indian inscriptions. 44k are S Indian, 28k are Tamil."

An awe-inspiring list, as incomplete as it may be for the reasons you suggest.

Much more useful than, at least, the first list on the Long Now blog, which is replete with contemporary novels of dubious value for either rebuilding civilization itself or reconstructing its history.

I might suggest a complete 1911 Britannica, though since it will be outdated and flawed in certain other respects perhaps selected modern additions to it might be colocated with it.

That, and a set of visual aids along the lines of McEvedy's atlases of world history [they would take little space] and a few of those visual timelines of general history, scientific history, and so forth, that once were very popular for schools and history nerd kids.

The people of the future might benefit from quick reference on the scale of the old world in space and time, the pace of its development and regressions, the trends in human demography, etc.