View Electronic Edition

Preface to The Essential Whole Earth Catalog

OUR OFFICE looks like a kicked-over anthill. Always. A succotash of books, catalogs, letters and strange hardware litters the place - some of it sent to us at our request, some sent by readers who think we've missed something. (We greatly encourage you to join the fray; see inside front cover for how.) We never know when we're going to meet someone or something we've never heard of before.

With such diverse input, it's no surprise that just about anyone can find things in this Catalog that'll make them mutter something like, 'Hm, I'd better read up on this," "I always wondered where you got those," or (as we often do ourselves), "Hey, check this!" Much of the information we've gathered is difficult or annoying to find, let alone with an opinion from an experienced reviewer. We'll look at most anything, old or new, wild or straight. We're the only publication we know of where such a melange is gathered into one place so you can mix and match your way into uncharted territory.

Of the 1,086 books recommended here, 652 are dated 1982 or newer. (The most recent Catalog came out in 1981.) Yet we acknowledge that newest is not necessarily best. You'll find classics whose excellence has let them endure despite a lack of current review or popularity. On the other hand, many of our favorite oldies are missing - out of print. Some have been replaced by books we think are inferior. Out-of-prints were a bother in the production of previous Catalogs, but they were a pestilence in this one. Over and over, we'd get a page built around a famous and wonderful book, only to have one of our researchers sigh, "It's OOPed."

Several forces are causing this unhappy state of affairs. First is a change in how books are sold. Bookstore chains are taking over the retail book trade, and they want every foot of shelf to pay its way. Such stores concentrate on fast-selling, well-pubUcized books rather than the slow-and-steady-selling classics. A recent spate of publishers taking over publishers hasn't helped; in a typical takeover, heads roll, taking enthusiasm for certain books with them. In 1981, the IRS made things worse by instituting a tax on unsold inventory (IRS vs. Thor Power Tools). That ruling gave pubUshers incentive to dump warehoused books rather than pay the inventory tax on them, which means disaster to books that find their niche slowly and settle to steady but unspectacular sales. To the IRS, books are mere products like electric drills. To us, books are sources of information. It's dumb to make information harder to find.

Even reference books aren't immune: the massive and authoritative Rodale's Encyclopedia of Indoor Gardening is gone. We mourn the passing of gems like Sir John Russell's The World of Soil. Our policy is to only present things that can be obtained by mail, but sometimes we recommend out-of-print books anyway because they're irreplaceable. Thus we feature the influential and disturbing Architecture Without Architects (p. 115) and the peerless How to Find and Buy Your Place in the Country (p. 140). You might be able to make a modest living reprinting books like these.

Of course, hehheh. Whole Earth Catalogs go out of print, too. But we do replace 'em with new ones now and then. Old friends can see that we've shrunk a bit physically - down from an unwieldy 5 1/2 pound megabook that wouldn't fit shelves (especially bathroom shelves) to a relatively svelte and handy 2 1/2 pounds. The table of contents remains about the same length, but the number of items reviewed has been limited to those our editors and consulting specialists deem to be the best introduction to a subject: the essential in our new title.

Metaphorically, previous Catalogs were like jungles. This edition is more like a garden, the result of 18 years of cultivation by us and our millions of readers. But it's not a formal garden; we encourage hybrids. Always have. Reviewers of our Catalogs have often missed the point by calling us a "wishbook." Not at all. You can grab ahold of nearly anything in here and make it a part of your life. Use the book like a huge key ring - select a key from one of our pages and use it to open the door to something new to you. Access to tools and ideas, just like it says on the cover. We use it ourselves.