Think About the Future: Books to be Buried With

At the end of May, my friend Marie Loughin ran a post on her blog titled “Books I Want to be Buried With” and challenged others to create their list. The whole thing struck a nerve with me. Here’s the pertinent section (though you really should look into her list):

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not against e-books. Guilt rides me every time I buy a print book, so these days I try to restrict paper purchases to novels I want to keep forever (and books that aren’t available as e-books or cost more as e-books than print). But even as I transition into a completely digital existence, I have this niggling concern that the great works of modern literature will be lost when civilization crumbles and the cloud evaporates into oblivion.

Therefore I feel it’s imperative to select some favorite novels to be buried with. That way, books found when I am exhumed by future archeologists need not be lost forever.

This put a new, intriguing spin on the whole “desert island books” concept. Hm, so we’re looking at not just what is personally relevant to us, but what is also important to keep in place for future, unknown generations, eh? Where do you go from there? She covered some books that I would have included on my own list, including The Stars My Destination and The Stand, so those are right out. Besides, that’s probably not the Stephen King that I would preserve, so let’s start with a King book:

The Shining – Stephen King

Don’t get me wrong, I like The Stand (the edited version more-so than the doorstop re-release), but I’m not sure it rises to the level of timeless classic. The Stand has great moments, but the last quarter of the book is an increasing clusterfuck that ends with, quite literally, the hand of God fixing the mess. For my money, I’m not sure that’s something I want to preserve for the future.

The Shining on the other hand? Oh my, yes. While it’s even more a product of its time than The Stand, that’s okay, because the Shining just does everything so well. Memorable, compelling characters? Check. Character arcs that make sense? Check. A building sense of menace and dread that ends in a riveting climax? Check. A good ending? Check again. I’m sure I could nitpick a few items here or there, but I don’t see the point. This is one that needs to be read by just about everyone.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

This is chosen for just about the polar opposite reason from the Shining. The characters have very little agency and almost no defining traits, and yet it works. Why? Because that’s the point of the whole thing. Vonnegut put it better than I could:

“There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”

I think in some ways it’s unparalleled as a commentary on the human condition circa the 20th century (and today, though that was unintended). The most amazing thing is that Vonnegut manages to do this while being funny and entertaining. It would be an invaluable aid to that future, far-flung version of humanity in understanding our society.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

I agonized over whether this fit. Is this only fiction, or are we sharing some of our non-fiction as well? I decided that I would allow myself a single non-fiction book, which is a monumental task on its own, as there are so many worthy scientific books for this list. In the end, I narrowed it down to Hawking’s book as it is, simply, the most essential work to get a grasp on what we understand about the universe. Yes, there are more complete texts, and some of the knowledge is a little out of date, but I have yet to find a book that makes these concepts so accessible to the average reader while maintaining accessibility; only Neil DeGrasse Tyson comes close, and yet his books are a little too scattered to make the cut. Hands-down one of my all-time favorite scientific texts.

As a side note, his gangsta rap is excellent.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

I don’t see how I could have created this list without this book. While an entertaining, straightforward read and a commentary on treatment of the mentally, the book also works as an extended metaphor for the struggles that face someone who doesn’t fit in with conventional society. The villain (in the true sense) Nurse Ratched is a fantastic allegory for the societal mechanisms that work to keep people in place, trying to make them fit into what is expected of them. Some would think the message is a bleak one, that the system destroys Murphy in the end, but I choose to see it more as a message of hope. Murphy felt forced to make his freedom work within the system, while the Chief seizes on an opportunity that didn’t even occur to Murphy: working outside of the system altogether.

In that context, I think you can see why I would leave this to future generations.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

This was an odd pick that just popped into my head, and though I kept pushing it away, it insisted on being included. Once I relented, it made all the sense in the world: our world is becoming the world of Snow Crash. What had seemed like an interesting, if a little silly, romp at its release has become prophetic. Read this description from Goodreads and tell me if it doesn’t sound familiar:

In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse.

Hiro’s world is a corporatocracy, where the corporations have seized control of the reins of power and carved out their own nation states. The real world is in decline, but that doesn’t matter to most people because they have their virtual worlds to escape into. Apathy combined with technology allows for greater controls over people than have ever been possible. I could go on and on, but the parallels are quite stunning, and I think it could teach something to that theoretical future generation. If we were allowed to leave some notes with it, of course.

And there’s my list. I probably could have added another five, but I had to draw the line somewhere. What about you? What would you prioritize in passing on? Do you think any of these books are ridiculous choices? Let me know.

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  1. Okay, thanks, Jonathan. I was just thinking, “What the hell am I going to post next week?” Still not sure this will be it, but it’s material.

    And I like your list. For fun, I think I’ll come up with another Stephen King (although I really liked The Shining… and The Stand, for that matter, but you are correct in the whole Deus Ex Machina thing at the end).

    Some great other choices here (although not familiar with the Snow Crash, I will have to check it out). I finally read Slaughterhouse Five two years ago after being a big fan of Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Still loyal to the latter, but I think I liked the former better. Not sure it would make it in my casket, but definitely a good one.

    Okay, so now on to the thinking.

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Very interested in seeing your list! I could read these things forever; it’s pretty cool to see what people value in books when it comes to their timelessness. Hmmm…trying to think of which other King might stand the test of time. Pet Sematary maybe?

      Breakfast of Champions is a good one, too, but it doesn’t quite have the commentary that I was thinking of for this list.

      Anyway, can’t wait to see the list! I’ll keep my eyes open for it.

  2. Funny, that’s the second time in a few days that someone has said nice things about Snow Crash. I’ll have to put it on my to-read list. I haven’t read The Shining yet, either. I know there’s more to King’s books than ever appears in the movies, but I suspect knowing the ending will take too much of the fun out of it.

    • Read The Shining, Marie! You will not be disappointed. One of the things I love about it is the way the movie and the book complement one another, each making the other a richer experience.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Seconding Aniko’s comment on The Shining. Even if you know the ending, there are quite a few twists and turns to get there. And if you’re thinking of Kubrick’s take, then you don’t know the entire ending, as he left out a very important element. I could REALLY see you digging into Snow Crash, as in addition to what I mentioned above there is a whole element of linguistics and memes as viral entities that I didn’t entirely get at the time but made more and more sense as the Internet progressed. I don’t hesitate to call it visionary.

  3. Hawking, represent! 🙂 I’m adding Snow Crash to my mental to read list – thanks!

  4. Nice list. I haven’t read The Shining in many, many years. Same with The Stand, up until a couple of months ago, that is, and I kind of wished I hadn’t. (Yeah, it’s that whole Deus Ex Machina thing…) So, I may well reread the The Shining, as we have the same opinion on The Stand.
    I also love One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Have you read Sometimes A Great Notion? It’s not quite as powerful as Cuckoo’s Nest, but it’s another great Kesey book. Back in the 80s I used to idolise Ken Kesey. I think I wanted to be him at one point.
    Snow Crash sounds interesting, I’ll have to check it out.
    I also responded to Marie’s intriguing post with my own list. You can find it here and I would love to know what you think.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Well, I wouldn’t say I’d never read The Stand again, it had a lot of great concepts and some interesting characters, though they often act out of character. It was just deeply flawed, but that’s okay.

      I haven’t read Sometimes a Great Notion! I need to check out, I think. I went through a Kesey idolization period, too, actually…it tied into the period when I discovered beat authors, which kind of naturally flowed into Kesey’s work.

      Checking your list out now, can already see a few that I need to read!

  5. Pingback: My Corpse as a Capsule: 5 books to put in my casket | Paul D. Dail

  6. I’ll have to think about my five. I have a few ideas already. I doubt I can explain my choices as eloquently as you, though. I’m assuming “because I like it!” isn’t a very good reason. 🙂

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