One Book. One Chance. And You.

Jeff VanderMeer • September 8th, 2009 @ 10:07 pm • Culture

(Would this be the book you would choose? If so, I am not your friend.)

Here’s the scenario: Human civilization is collapsing. There’s no guarantee we’ll be around much longer. In the chaos, you have the opportunity to put a book in a cannister that might be the only thing that survives–it must contain as much of the totality of human experience as possible. It might be found by aliens or by our successors. Problem is, you’ve only got novels at hand. Which do you pick? Why?

(No picking your own book. No choosing anything other than a novel. Can’t choose omnibuses. Might use this for an Amazon feature…)

42 Responses to “One Book. One Chance. And You.”

  1. tim says:

    Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau (unless you count Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as one book…)

  2. Jay Lake says:

    Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe. It covers everything – race, sex, alienation, the human condition, colonialism, exploitation, fear, love, redemption. And some damned fine writing, should our putative aliens have a sense of style.

  3. thelittlefluffycat says:

    Decider, by Dick Francis. The choices we make make us who we are, but we are also who we are because of the choices we make – whether they concern spouse, children, vocation, or even what we’re willing to die for.

  4. Paolo Bacigalupi says:

    Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. That should give them a full enough understanding of why we collapsed.

  5. rick in stumptown says:

    Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. This is an impossible task, to encompass the human experience in one novel, but I think Stephenson comes as close as anyone can. Cryptomonicon has interpersonal relationships, changes in society and technology over time, and an honest look at the faults that define humanity.

  6. Brit Mandelo says:

    Huh. I. I don’t know?

    This is a remarkably difficult question that seemed easy at first. I’ll just throw one out there, and I’d probably come up with something different every time I thought about it:

    “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman. Because of the discussion of culture and the development of stories contained therein, as well as the depth of human experience and love and desire and sorrow. I think if somebody had to understand us based on one book, that one could be a good help.

  7. jeff vandermeer says:


  8. Jenny Davidson says:

    Texaco is a good choice – Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children would be another in that vein – but I will stick with something more traditional – War and Peace! Proust skews towards the subjectivity of human experience rather than the totality of human experience…

  9. Jenny Davidson says:

    p.s. I loved Cryptonomicon – but we cannot say it speaks in any direct sense to the FEMALE experience, insofar as such a thing can be defined! In Stephenson’s oeuvre, The Diamond Age would be a fuller picture!

  10. jefferson burson says:

    although there are other novels more dear to me than this one, I’d probably have to say “war and peace” by tolstoy, for reasons fairly similar to those espoused by rick in stumptown. Tolstoy captures a remarkably broad swath of the human experience in its characters and the history it tells — in war and peace (of course), in love, in sorrow, in triumphs and defeats, in faith (both profound and misplaced), in redemption, and in hope.

  11. chaim skipjack says:

    The one novel I can think of which is peerlessly panoramic of human sensibilities is George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’. Profound, honest, wise, a reminder of the multitude of characteristics (both obvious and subtle) which are intrinsic to humans and don’t change over the centuries. Never read Tolstoy but I reckon ‘Middlemarch’ might offer a similar sweep. A bunch of good storylines to boot.

  12. chaim skipjack says:

    Whoops – in the aliens’ case, not a reminder of our characteristics but an introduction.

    Addendum: if we buried the capsule in London I’d put in Martin Amis’ ‘London Fields’ instead. An absolutely perfect way to say: ‘Humanity was exhausted, mate. Your turn’. It might also lead them to believe darts was the pinnacle of our civilisation, though.

  13. Paul Jessup says:

    Brothers Karramazzov (spl?) is perhaps the one book I think that would encompass the entirety of the human experience. And- it’s an existentialist murder mystery! My runner up would be The Name of the Rose….

  14. Drax says:


  15. jeff vandermeer says:

    garp’s definitely one I thought of.

  16. Scott Edelman says:

    My gut reaction is … Little Big.

    Though I have a feeling that if I thought about it longer I might change my mind.

    My initial second thought? Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

  17. alex says:

    The human experience is a pretty morphing thing and I’d feel under too much pressure if I was going for The Whole Thing. But, if I could narrow it down to just a great expression of human experience in my place and time, I’d probably go with David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’.

  18. Hellbound Heart says:

    hmmm….let me think…….(sound of grinding and clunking)……lord of the flies? exposing humanity’s id…..the colour purple? human spirit and tenacity……or (i’m going to be extremely selfish here, just for pure emotion, probably very female) the bridges of madison county, just because of what it shows about the intensity of love…..

    my daughter? she’d probably pick the wizard of oz or green eggs and ham…..

    peace and love…….

  19. Michael C. Rush says:

    One Hundred Years of Solitude, Garcia-Marquez.

  20. Jenny Davidson says:

    Interesting to think, too, of what it means to choose, say, Alice vs. Karamazov! After suggesting War and Peace, I was then distracted by wondering whether a first-person novel like David Copperfield does not in certain respects capture more of life than even Tolstoy does. Certainly it is a novel that is dearer to me – that must count for something.

  21. SMD says:

    The Bible. No, not because I’m religious, but because if any book can properly convey all that is seriously screwed up about your species, but also show some of what is actually good, it is that book.

  22. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Jenny–and then there is the question: does any one book convey equally well a male and female POV, as well as a multi-cultural one? The task here is, of course, impossible, but I am curious to see people’s picks because we hear so much about fiction as entertainment these days and not enough about other qualities it might possess.

  23. tim says:

    That’s partly why I recommended Texaco… it comes as close as a book can, I think, to conveying multiple voices, histories, genders, well – realities, rooted in a post-colonial paradigm. In its untranslated form, it is also multilingual, being written in both French and creole, with a smattering of English. It has mutliple narrators, some male, some female, some white, some black, it has spirits and slavery and revolution and a volcano, industry, farming, babies, death.

  24. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Tim–thanks for that. I will definitely check it out! Exciting!

  25. Jamil says:

    Ulysses. ’cause that’s how I felt while reading it, like I was ingesting “as much of the totality of human experience as possible.”

  26. Bryan Russell says:

    Though lacking in certain things I might want in such a book, I might still pick Catch-22 – I think the dynamic of tragedy and humour at play in that novel is wonderfully representative of life and human resilience. Yes, we can laugh even in the face of death. I think that says something relevant.

  27. S.P. Miskowski says:

    Had to give this a lot of thought–and came back with my title, then found Bryan Russell already named it. I think my reasons for choosing Catch-22 might be different, though. The book is set during a conflict so enormous we call it a world war. Every person on the planet ended up being affected by this conflict, whether they realized it at the time or not. Catch-22 shows our resilience, yes, but also our stupidity. Why show aliens only our goodness? This book nails human nature. We make war. We steal and we thrive on the destruction of others. This may or may not be our necessary truth and our nature, but it is what we do. The book is about war and commerce, and how humans persist at both no matter what.

    Also, the circular structure of the book works the way our consciousness works: humans recollect only certain things, but each time we recall something we add to it and make it more vivid for ourselves and others. Catch-22 demonstrates what we really are and how we think and how we treat one another.

  28. Daemon says:

    Anything that contains “as much of the totality of human experience as possible” would be far too boring to bother with.

    I’d probably go with just about anything by Charles deLint.

  29. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Ah, striking a blow against pretentiousness, huh? LOL. So you’d send deLint to the aliens. I think you have to pick a specific book, because I wouldn’t send “just about anything” from anybody.

  30. Bob Lock says:

    Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. For: its heartbreakingness, its tenderness, its environmental message and its promise that through it all the human spirit has the capacity to endure.

    Now, have we also the capacity to learn?

  31. C. Sän Inman says:

    The Princess Bride by William Goldman.

  32. Bryan Russell says:


    Yes, I think that’s what I was getting at with the “tragedy” bit. It has our arrogance, violence and absurdity down pat, but also hope, resilience, humour, etc. I like the balance, and how the tragic and humourous intermingle. I don’t think I know any other books about the fear of death that are hilarious…

  33. S.P. Miskowski says:

    That’s true, Bryan, and I can remember just walking around in a daze, sort of tingling mentally and physically, after reading it. Heller got so much of humanity into that book. No wonder he didn’t write another novel for a while. There were more stories to tell, in terms of plot, but what more was there to say?

  34. Matthew Dyer says:

    I think I’d lean towards Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. There’s something about the various stages of wisdom gained through life that I find highly appealing. I get something different out of the book every time I read it. It’s not perfect, but it’s always interesting.

  35. S.J. Chambers says:

    A few of my suggestions have already been made, which makes me wonder what if we give the aliens a kindle? Would they know?

    If I could pick one, though, I think it would be Fahrenheit 451. As the last remaining book, it would only make sense it be about the lack of appreciation of books and how wonderful they are.

  36. Timblynod says:

    Don Quixote of La Mancha. Though I still maintain that Quixote was abducted by aliens and probed vigorously, and the novel was therefore the first work of science fiction (thereby encompassing even more of the requisite ‘totality of human experience’).

  37. Anne S says:

    I would naturally select “Sinai Tapestry” by Edward Whittemore, so that whoever found it – be it future person or alien – would say, “Original and unreal? Imitation and unreal? What gibberish is this? What madness?” And upon reading the book, would discover the above text within the novel and wonder how a book could be so prescient.

  38. Hellbound Heart says:

    ……thought of another choice….what about the diary of anne frank? definitely shows the polar opposites of humanity…..

    peace and love…..

  39. Greg L Johnson says:

    I’m late to the party on this one, but the book that popped into my mind was also Catch-22, if only so that sometime one of the aliens would be able to say to another “That’s some catch, that catch-22.”

  40. James says:

    Gravity’s Rainbow, because it sums up the last century in a way that still makes you feel what it is to live right now.

  41. f. says:

    Arabian Nights. Because of the all-genres-in-one thing (epic, poetry, fable, fantasy, family saga, war stories, picaresque stories, romance, erotica, religious dogma, and so on).

  42. Neddal says:

    Charles De Lint? Gaiman? Crowley? Really? Really? The best picks so far have been Dostoevsky and Cervantes. (Though Vonnegut…) My vote goes to The Odyssey, which ain’t really a novel but whatever it’s a long mostly cohesive narrative. If you’re gonna make me choose an actual novel, then Huckleberry Finn. The aliens or the cat-people that will inherit the earth will dig it. (Or maybe The Drowned World by Ballard or Naked Lunch by Burroughs. Or…heh…a Kindle loaded up w/all the books above + the Modern Library + The Penguin Classics…)

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