Book Review:  Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand by John Markoff

I’m always on the lookout for good books on the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s. The title of this biography emphasizes Brand’s main contribution to that era, The Whole Earth Catalog. Though it delves into the making of the catalog, it tells the story of Brand’s entire life, of which The Whole Earth Catalog is but a part, albeit the part for which he is best known.

Markoff points out that Brand is often associated with the hippy counterculture, but he was never really an integral part of it. He existed on the periphery as a journalist, photographer, filmmaker, and multimedia event organizer. Although he knew Ken Kesey and many other radical figures of the time, he was not a member of the Merry Pranksters; he was not “on the bus,” so to speak, as they made their epic cross-country journey that Tom Wolfe documented in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He did assist the Pranksters in putting on the acid tests, though, and got to know many of them.

Brand’s greatest and most enduring contribution to popular culture was The Whole Earth Catalog, which was actually a series of catalogs and supplements that were published between 1968 and 1972 and occasionally thereafter. Steve Jobs referred to it as a prelude to the Google search engine. It was full of product reviews and articles intended to make it easier for those in the “back to the land” movement to have access to the tools they needed, but its functionality and impact ultimately went far beyond its initial goals.

While reading this book, I got out my own copy of The Last Whole Earth Catalog (the 1971 edition that won the National Book Award), which I had obtained while conducting some research for my hippy-era novel The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen. Back then, over a decade ago, I bought a good used copy for ten or fifteen dollars. Now, I couldn’t find used copies on Amazon for less than two hundred dollars. As I browsed the pages, I could imagine the lure of this multifaceted volume for people in the times before the internet.

The Whole Earth Catalog was only one of many projects that Brand conceived and worked on in the decades since his initial America Needs Indians! multimedia presentations. In fact, as Markoff points out, he was primarily an idea man and eventually tired of even the most dynamic of the projects he undertook. For instance, he left The Whole Earth Catalog at the height of its popularity. He later became interested in the early development of personal computers and the rise of the Silicon Valley computer culture, creating one of the first social media sites for idea exchange, which he called the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, or WELL.

Later, Brand became deeply enmeshed in the cultures of large corporations, working as a consultant for Shell Oil and other companies. He helped to found the Global Business Network and became a proponent of nuclear energy and genetically modified organisms, thus alienating many of the environmentalists that he had inspired in the past.

In short, Brand was (and is) an anomaly, a peripheral figure for various movements. He came from a position of privilege; his parents supported his early endeavors so he did not have to struggle or work for a living. In later life he became quite wealthy and aligned himself with the rich and powerful. At one point he even considered writing a book on the advantages and power associated with being rich. While reading this book, I kept coming back to a comparison with Steve Jobs, who also began in the counterculture but later rose to a respected corporate position. Both Jobs and Brand led (or lead) fascinating, multifaceted lives but had (or have) deep flaws as well as amazing talents. Neither is what one would call uplifting or moral role models, but both profoundly shaped the eras in which they accomplished their most important work.

In conclusion, this is a very well-written, well-researched biography that sheds light on the hippy era of the sixties and seventies, the early years of Silicon Valley, and some of the controversies in the environmental movement. Sometimes I felt as if Markoff introduces too many historical characters at once without adequate explanation and I had trouble keeping them all straight. Otherwise, though, it is an important book and is well worth reading. Recommended.

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