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Stewart Brand and his five pounds of ideas for the '80s

By Stewart McBrideStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 1981



Sausalito, Calif.

Eight years ago, when Stewart Brand's "The Last Whole Earth Catalog" won the National Book Award for Contemporary Affairs, it caused one of the biggest flaps in recent publishing history. The catalog, a manifesto of the counterculture and paean to self-sufficiency, was a funky compendium of homespun technology and how-to's on everything from arc welding to pig-tooth nippers, from Amish work clothes to the literary essays of Ezra Pound.

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Cheap criticism pooh-poohed the volume as the "hippie's Sears catalog," and when the National Book award was announced, NBA juror Gary Wills resigned in protest because he didn't think the catalog qualified as a "book." The award citation called it a Space Age Walden, and one of the judges stuck his neck out far enough to remark: "In 100 years, 'The Last Whole Earth Catalog' probably will be the only book of 1971 to be remembered."

Overnight, Brand's $5 newsprint catalog became an international best seller ( 1.6 million copies were sold), and it pioneered a new species of book which the publishing industry dubbed the "trade paperback." The pin-striped Wall Street Journal trumpeted the arrival of the "catalog of catalogs," and the producers of "Bye Bye Birdie" and "1776" battled over who would get to turn the catalog, with a few kick lines and catchy tunes, into a Broadway musical. (Both deals fell through.)

In November, Brand, editor, visionary, entrepreneur, and alumnus of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, committed a much-awaited sequel called "The Next Whole Earth Catalog." It weighs in at 5 pounds 2 ounces, bears the inflation- struck price of $12.50, and contains 608 quarto pages stuffed with 2,700 items ranging from astronauts to zomeworks (a solar-power research group).

In 1971 Brand had left himself a hard act to follow, but the new catalog is better researched, better designed, and more profound than the "Last." It zestfully addresses the needs of the 1980s and aims at an audience that includes not only college students and veterans of the '60s, but also the vast American citizenry, shellshocked by inflation and in search of tax-free, do-it-yourself solutions. "Today's 'whole Earth' people are less concerned about countering culture than surviving," says Brand, who, with a score of young men and women, spent five months of 70-hour weeks compiling the catalog.

His staff, which Brand descibes as a bunch of "generalists hopelessly in love with details," works out of a converted luncheonette on the edge of Sausalito's houseboat ghetto, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The day I arrived at the offices on Gate Five Road, a black mutt was sniffing at a piece of moldy bread in the bushes and his owner, in green rubber boots, was in hot pursuit: "C'mon, Food Stamp! Get out of there!" Aging cars in the parking lot bore bumper stickers which urged: "Stop the Metric System" and "US Out of North america." The surrounding buildings were scrawled with graffiti: "Bad Investment Zone" and "Cultural Genocide," scars of the ongoing battle between condominium developers and waterfront residents.

Inside the office, at the end of a maze of shelved reference books, I found Stewart Brand sinking into an old couch covered with an Indian blanket.Looking as if he had just come ashore from his sloop, Bakea, he wore blue jeans, a bulky sweater, and scruffy leather track shoes. A navy Greek fisherman's cap covered Brand's thinning blond hair. Behind his weathered patrician features lurked a man, part-monk, part- clown, who got his education from Phillips Exeter Academy, Stanford University, and the Beats in San Francisco's North Beach. the penchant for catalogs he inherited from his father.

"My father was a mail order maniac. We had hundreds of catalogs coming to the house.Norm Thompson, L. L. Bean. He was always searching for better quality and prices, and instead of slogging it out on the street, he shopped with his feet up," says Brand, stretching out his six-foot frame and kicking his feet up on a black wood stove. "Vermont Castings Stoves, Stephenson Warmlite sleeping bags," he says dreamily. "They're the best in the world and available by mail order."