Building a Home Library: How to Select the Best Books

A carefully selected home library can make the difference between successful self reliance or years of struggle. Learn how to choose the best books to read on self reliance and homesteading skills.
By Wendy Brown
May 30, 2013
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"Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs" by Wendy Brown is packed with practical solutions for increasing your self reliance.
Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers
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Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs by Wendy Brown (New Society Publishers, 2011) is packed with practical solutions for increasing your self reliance and transitioning to a lower-energy lifestyle.  In this excerpt from Chapter 17, Wendy explains how to set up a home library with a good selection of books covering skills for self reliance, as well as books for education and entertainment.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs.

Building A Home Library

In a lower-energy future, I do not think book publishing will die. We will always have books, and even with all of today’s wonderful digital readers, there will always be bound paper books, because people just like them.

That said, given what I know of our lower-energy past, I do believe that owning a library, like mine, will be for the Gatsbys in our world, and the average Joe, like me, will not have the extra cash to buy books in the quantities I have.

Which is why, if we are going to be prepping for a lower-energy future, amassing a library now should be considered as important a part of the process as storing food . . . and firearms . . . maybe even more important. As a parent and a home-schooler, I know that the single most important academic subject I can teach my children is reading. Once they know how to read, they can do anything. If I had to choose between buying a gun and buying a book, I would buy a book on how to make a gun and ammunition, and then, because books are so much less expensive than guns, I would buy more books on various skills. At some point, the guy who has stored guns and several years’ worth of winter wheat will have a bunch of useless guns, and not much else, because all of the things he stored will be used up, but I will still have my books, plus all of the knowledge they contain. One of us will be in better shape than the other.

What are the Best Books to Buy and Where?

If I were going to start from square one in building my home library, my first stop would be my public library. No, don’t steal their books, for heaven’s sake! Several times a year, libraries hold Friends of the Library sales, during which bags and boxes of books can be purchased for only a few dollars. These are typically donated or discontinued books, ones that have been on the library shelves for a long time without being borrowed. They are pulled from the shelves and sent on to a new life, hopefully, in someone’s home library.

While really good how-to books are typically in short supply at these sales, there is always a lot of great fiction. My mother loves Friends of the Library sales. She will buy several dollars worth of paperbacks and send them to us. Contemporary fiction abounds at these sales, and certainly, having a lot of “escapist” literature in a world that is falling apart is wonderful. I would also search for books on lists like the 100 best novels, most of which provide timeless lessons. I have many of the books on both the Board’s List and the Reader’s List. I highly recommend collecting as many as one can find, cheaply.

For fiction, I would never pay full price. In fact, if I can not find them at the library sales, thrift stores or used bookstores (in order of cost), I look on PaperBackSwap.com (PBS), but I really like to save my credits (because each credit costs me the price of shipping one of my books to another member) on PBS for hard-to-find or out-of-print non-fiction — like Stewart Coffin’s Black Spruce Journals, which was on my wish list at PBS. I also, occasionally, get books from Freecycle, a great resource for free contemporary fiction. If library building is the goal, then collecting whatever one can get free is well advised.

For many books, I would simply pay full price, because having the book will enhance my life especially in a lower-energy future. I spent almost $30 on Carla Emery’s classic, The Encyclopedia of Country Living, which I see is now selling for two-thirds what I paid. Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden cost me $37 at a discounted rate through my local permaculture group. That sometimes happens, and I do not regret paying more by buying it sooner. As with other prep items, you can buy it now and spend more, or wait to buy it later, when it might be cheaper, and risk not getting it at all. I normally choose to err on the side of caution when it comes to books.

For Samuel Thayer’s The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden, I paid full price, and would do so again. We have several wild edibles books specific to our area, but I like that Thayer’s books also have recipes. It is one thing to be able to identify and harvest the plants; it is something altogether different to know what to do with them. Since most of us are grocery-store grazers, wild harvesting is something very new, and we need all of the information we can get. It is a really good idea to start finding the books and learning as much as possible now, while the grocery stores are still available.

I also have a lot of books on herbs, especially herbal medicine. My favorite and most consulted is Andrew Chevalier’s The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. Another that I will likely use in a worst-case scenario is Where There Is No Doctor; my husband’s lovely aunt found us a free copy at her local recycling center (another place for free books, by the way). I have already read through it, and the book has a lot of good advice and information — most importantly about adequate nutrition, clean water and good sanitary practices, which are the best health care. I definitely can not argue with that.

Rounding out my library are dozens of how-to books. We have books on how to raise animals (including bees), brew beer, make cider, grow all sorts of gardens (from four-season to hydroponic), fill a pantry with home-preserved food, bow-hunt, skin animals, tan hides, build stuff (from cabinets to solar homes), blacksmith, teach poetry, write a resume, start a business and just about any other subject you might think of. Go ahead, ask me. I might surprise you.

And then, there are the children’s books ... oh, my ... overflowing shelves ....

Five Best Books for Self Reliance

If I had no books at all and had to pick just five to start with, I would acquire the most comprehensive resources on self-sufficient living I could find. Those listed above are a good start: Carla Emery, for all-around country living ideas and information; The Forager’s Harvest or Nature’s Garden for a comprehensive wild edibles book (but in this case, I would also find something specific to my region); Andrew Chevalier’s book on herbal medicines; almost anything by Tom Brown, but Field Guide to Living with the Earth has been particularly useful; and the preserving book Stocking Up. That is where I would start for the non-fiction.

For fiction, I would start with the 100-best lists or with the American Library Association’s Most Challenged Books list, because those books are the ones with great stories, impeccable writing and lessons that we need to remember. There should also be a healthy dose of fluff fiction and dime-store novels. For many years, Stephen King was my favorite author, much to my college professor’s dismay. I also admit to enjoying some of Jackie Collins’ fiction. Some other favorite contemporary writers are Alice Hoffman, Barbara Kingsolver and John Irving. We each have to pick our own escapes, but in a world that is becoming increasingly hostile, reading stories whose only redeeming value is either showing us that our lot in life is not so bad after all or allowing us to imagine how good life could be will be much more important.

Books are invaluable. In today’s society, we do not value them like we should, or like people used to value them. In my grandmother’s day, most people had only a Bible, if that, and anyone who had more books was rich. Books were a luxury, and in a lower-energy world, may become so again.

I recently read Eternity Road, by Jack McDevitt, about a future world with no books. No books. The thought makes my skin crawl. But there is a rumor that a place where books have been preserved exists. The story is about a group of adventurers who risk their lives to find this mythical place.

But after reading the book, I had to consider which books would I save for posterity, which ones would I want to save that would represent my culture to a future world? I have not been able to come up with a list, because I could not get beyond the idea of a world without books. What I do know for me, at this moment, is that as long as I have a little money, I’ll buy books, and if any money is left, I’ll buy food and clothing. Because I can grow food, and I can make clothes, but books ... well, without books so much knowledge is lost ... and if the world as we know it is going to end, the biggest tragedy would be the loss of the incredible wealth of information that is contained in our books.

Let’s not let that happen. There are five days left to amass a small library. So, what are you waiting for?


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs: The Thrivalist’s Guide to Life Without Oil, New Society Publishers, 2011. Buy this book from our store: Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs.


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