Towards a Dark Mountain reading list

This post by Dougald Hine originally appeared on the Dark Mountain blog

Over the last few weeks, a lot of people have asked us to suggest books which pick up on the themes of this project. In time, we’ll add a recommended reading section to the site. As a first step towards that, I thought I’d share a list that I made for a friend who had enjoyed the manifesto and wanted to know where to go next.

Writing this, I realise that some people will be surprised by the absence of names like Daniel Quinn, Derrick Jensen, Jared Diamond or James Howard Kunstler. This is a personal selection, representing the writers and books which led me to this project – I’m sure Paul’s list would be different again. It’s also a reflection of our aim to open up a broader cultural conversation about the kinds of future we may be headed towards, that’s in dialogue with, but not limited to, the “collapse” genre.

There are other kinds of omission: this is an all-male selection, for example. I’m hoping others will extend it in directions where our knowledge becomes sketchy, and suggest other writers whose work we should be celebrating. Please add your suggestions in the comments, and let’s start the process of creating a Dark Mountain reading list.

Alan Garner, ‘Thursbitch’ – If I had to choose one novel to represent the kind of writing for which we argue in the manifesto, this would be it. Brilliantly written, it is grounded in a deep sense of place and time. At its heart is an eighteenth century jagger, Jack Turner, whose journeys across the Pennines and beyond trace the far end of a web of marketplaces and campfires – becoming, ultimately, the Silk Road – by which goods and stories travel the length of a continent.

A novel is not a means to an end and I wouldn’t want to use this or any other as a piece of ammunition. I do believe, though, that we may be better prepared for a future which turns out not to be an upgraded version of the present, if we become more aware that the past was not a prototype for the present. I know few books which more powerfully evoke the strangeness – the autonomy, even – of the past.

John Berger, ‘Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance’ – The theme of time comes up also in the latest collection of essays from Berger, another writer who embodies the spirit of this project for me. “The longer one looks at Jitka Hanzlová’s pictures of a forest,” he writes, “the clearer it becomes that a breakout from the prison of modern time is possible.” Berger’s break-out is never escapist. “I’ve always put life before writing,” says the autobiographical narrator of his novel ‘Here is where we meet’. His work insists on the need to stay with lived experience, and particularly the experience of those outside the walls of the centres of power. This kind of writing from “beyond the city limits” is what I’ll be looking for in contributions to the Dark Mountain journal.

David Cayley, ‘The Rivers North of the Future’ – Ivan Illich is best known for books like ‘Deschooling Society’ and ‘Energy and Equity’, widely read in the 1970s. Twenty-five years later, towards the end of his life, he took part in a series of conversations with David Cayley which became this book. These conversations explore the understanding of history underpinning Illich’s work, summed up by the Latin motto, corruptio optimi pessima, “the corruption of the best is the worst.” How is it that institutions and structures born out of good intentions can come to produce the opposite of their intended effects? This is a historical investigation into the origins of those institutions which – as Illich writes in his final book, ‘In the Vineyard of the Text’ – “create needs faster than they can create satisfaction, and in the process of trying to meet the needs they generate… consume the earth.” What comes out of this is the importance of distinguishing ground-level human needs from the systems by which we happen to meet them at this point in time.

David Abram, ‘The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World’ – This is a difficult book to sum up – Abram is an academic philosopher and anthropologist, who also happens to be a sleight-of-hand magician. His attempt to understand how language and writing shape our relationship to the world starts from his personal experiences among indigenous magicians in Southeast Asia. “The task of the magician,” he says, “is to startle our senses and free us from outmoded ways of thinking.” That is certainly a Dark Mountainish enterprise, and his argument about the origins of the skills of literacy in the skills our ancestors used to “read” their surroundings is appropriately startling. This is a book which has particular relevance to the theme of anthropocentrism, which Paul wrote about the other day.

Hugh Brody, ‘The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World’ – We do not find it easy to imagine other ways of living, except in terms of our horror at the loss of what we take for granted. Hugh Brody has spent over forty years as an anthropologist and an advocate working on behalf of tribal peoples. The central theme of his work is that these people are not “living in the past”. They are our contemporaries, and in his accounts of his experiences, he describes people making deliberate choices about which technologies they do and don’t wish to adopt: what is and isn’t compatible with the way they want to live. These are deeply contemporary choices. Through observations such as those of Anaviapik – an Inuit friend of Brody’s, visiting London for the first time – we can get a sense of the strangeness of things which we take for granted. At the same time, Brody offers a larger historical argument about the deep roots of our ways of thinking in the relationship between hunters and farmers, stretching over thousands of years.

Neal Ascherson, ‘Black Sea’ – This is not a critique of civilisation, but an attempt to understand it – or, more precisely, to understand the historical roots of our concepts of “civilisation” and “barbarism” in the encounter between Ancient Greek culture and its neighbours on the far side of the Black Sea. Ascherson ranges backwards and forwards, tracing the echoes of this encounter through the stories of the peoples who have lived around that great inland water, from prehistory to the last days of the Soviet Union.

Steven Mithen, ‘After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5,000 BC’ – This is an epic summary of what we know about how people lived through the last major period of climate change. Mithen is a Professor of Archaeology and he combines a command of his subject matter with a talent for teasing stories out of it.

Take his nightmarish reconstruction of the early town of Çatalhöyük, with its fearsome iconography of bulls and women whose breasts split apart to reveal the skulls of dead animals. Mithen suspects its residents, alienated from nature, became trapped inside their own myths: ‘every aspect of their lives had become ritualised, any independence of thought and behaviour crushed out of them by an oppressive ideology manifest in the bulls, breasts, skulls and vultures.’ Or again, there is the haunting story of the Natufians, who lived comfortably in villages across the Middle East for fifty generations, before the climatic switchback of the Younger Dryas brought in a thousand years of cold and drought, scattering them to a hungry, wandering existence.

Mithen does not offer any overarching theory about civilisation; rather, the power of his book lies in the diversity of stories it offers, the range of ways in which people respond to their circumstances and the role of culture in shaping those responses.

John Michael Greer, ‘The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age’ – Among the writers who offer a direct account of our present situation and the changes which may lie ahead, Greer’s book – and his blog, The Archdruid Report – stand out for the depth and breadth of his frame of reference. In ‘The Long Descent’, he ranges from a presentation of the case for Peak Oil, to a speculative survey of the prospects for different religious traditions in a world of global economic contraction. He insists on the inevitability of such a contraction, and is equally scathing about those who believe it can be avoided, and those who anticipate a sudden, dramatic collapse. Each group, he claims, is deluded by a classic Western myth: the myth of progress and the myth of apocalypse. Whether or not you accept the whole of his argument, he is one of the clearest thinkers and best writers in this territory, and this is a book which also contains practical suggestions for how we adapt to the scenarios outlined.

Dmitry Orlov, ‘Reinventing Collapse’ – While Greer’s hallmark is his erudition, Dmitry Orlov stands out from the (mostly American) “collapse” genre for his personal experience of the economic and social breakdown of a society. Drawing on his experiences before, during and after the fall of the Soviet Union, he calls his work “a comparative theory of superpower collapse”, and his writing is laced with a dark Russian humour. In Orlov’s account, collapse is ultimately personal: however large-scale its causes, the experience varies from individual to individual, and plays out differently according to how we and those around us respond. ‘Reinventing Collapse’ is a reminder that the circumstances envisaged with horror by much of the collapse literature are the lived experience of people in many places today. The personal and collective resilience by which life goes on in failed states and shanty towns may turn out to have a great deal to teach us.

None of these books is easy to summarise, but together they offer one route across the terrain of the Dark Mountain. If you want to explore that route further, we’ve put together a Dark Mountain bookstore where you can order these and other titles relating to this project. (It’s powered by Amazon – and any commission we get will go towards the costs of publishing the first issue of the Dark Mountain journal.)

And if you have suggestions for other books that should be on our reading list, please tell us about them!