If the apocalypse happened tomorrow, what mementos would you try and protect? 

Would you save any books that could help survivors remember the past, or rebuild a future society?

We posed this question to librarians at the New York Public Library.

Their answers range from practical survival guides to books that inspire post-apocalyptic utopias.

Pick up a copy and stick these in your doomsday bunker — or on your bookshelf for rainy day reading.

“All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum

“I would offer ‘All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten‘ by Robert Fulghum,” said Maura Muller of the New York Public Library (NYPL) Volunteers Office.

“Perhaps if we rebuilt with some simple basics like ‘share, don’t hit others, play fair, take a nap each day, and go out into the world with a sense of wonder’ we would get off to a better start in our rebuilding efforts.” 

By evaluating and finding meaning in small, everyday occurrences, Fulghum offers insights that continue to resonate with readers.

Buy it here



“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba

“I would carefully choose books that (as the poet Dickinson relates) ‘dwell in possibility’ — titles that inspire readers to imagine, explore, create and commit to leading a life with purpose including, Kamkwamba’s ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” said Miriam Tuliao of the NYPL Selection Team.

Kamkwamba — without a classic education and with only an out-of-date school textbook — built a working windmill in rural Malawi. It’s an inspiring story about perseverance and how alternative forms of electricity can change the world.

Buy it here



“Collected Fictions” by Jorge Luis Borges

“Just one of Borges’ ultra-short stories can open up a mind and keep it busy for hours and days and weeks after reading it — and this volume contains all of his best,” says Nancy Aravecz of the Mid-Manhattan NYPL branch.

“His weird and imaginative labyrinths, libraries, mysteries, and encyclopedias have the potential to inspire new ideas and create a wealth of new possibilities for a new and creative civilization.”

A volume of his short stories is an experience in and of itself.

Buy it here



“The Collected Works of Dr. Seuss” by Dr. Seuss

“If we have to start again, our (new) literature canon should cultivate thoughtful, kind individuals with bright, limitless imaginations,” said Charlie Radin of the NYPL in Inwood. “For my money, you can’t do any better than Dr. Seuss.”

From “The Lorax” to “Oh! The Places You’ll Go,” these silly books contain gems of wisdom that get “your brain whizzling, clicking, and popping like it should,” according to Radin.

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“The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm” by the Brothers Grimm

“I’d go with ‘The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm‘ because I think any civilization needs a foundation of stories to give people a set of shared references and a place from which to build a culture and rich life of creating their own tales and adventures,” Stephanie Whelan of Seward Park’s library branch said.

A newly updated translation of the book includes an introduction on the brothers’ motives for gathering the stories. Just be warned, these are not the watered-down, Disney-fied versions but the original, gritty tales.

Buy it here



“Cosmos” by Carl Sagan

“A wonderful book by one of humankind’s best teachers, Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos‘ is an essential, empowering, and humbling read,” said Nancy Aravecz of the Mid-Manhattan library branch.

“Post-apocalypse, Sagan’s accessible and heartfelt tome on the evolution and interconnectedness of time, space, life, and civilization would be an invaluable resource for a humanity rising from the ashes.”

“Cosmos” provides an illuminating look at our universe and humanity in a way that no book has truly captured since.

Buy it here



“D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths” by Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire

“[I’d recommend] a childhood favorite: ‘D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths‘ by Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire,” said Joshua Soule of Spuyten Duyvil’s library branch. “The illustrations were brilliant and would bring some color to a dreary post-apocalypse.” 

The Greek mythologies are not watered down and the book itself is beautifully illustrated. Over 40 years after its original publication, it remains a classic.

Buy it here



“The Dispossessed” by Ursula Le Guin

“Without a doubt, I choose ‘The Dispossessed‘ by Ursula Le Guin,” Carmen Nigro of the Milstein Division in the NYPL said. “This is the story of just that, and there is still an abundance of material to consider — ideas, dreams, consequences.”

“It’s an interesting look at utopia — that there can be an imperfect utopia and it can still be a utopia,” she continued. “That, the revolution is you, that revolutions like change are cyclical and unending. That time itself is a revolution. This is an outstanding book.”

Buy it here



“Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart

“I would choose by George R. Stewart’s ‘Earth Abides,'” said Gergory Holch of the Mulberry Street NYPL branch. “It is a science fiction classic from 1949 that describes this exact event, and gives a believable look at what the outcome will be after several generations.” 

The story is set after one of the worst epidemics in human history and follows a motley crew of survivors as they try to make a new society and discover the source of the disease.

Buy it here



“The Foxfire 45th Anniversary Book” edited by Joyce Green and Casi Best

“I’d want the Foxfire magazine compilations — with advice on topics from how to build a log cabin to how to make apple butter,” suggested Judd Karlman of NYPL’s City Island division. “My hope is that it would help us stay fed while we re-built society.”

“Foxfire” magazine anthologized the legends, customs, and knowledge of the people of Appalachia, whether it was playing a banjo or how to build a sled. This book takes the best stories and tips and combines them into one amazing volume.

Buy it here



“How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman

“I’d also want a good cookbook,” said Elizabeth Waters of Mid-Manhattan’s library branch. “An all around basic cookbook like Mark Bittman’s ‘How to Cook Everything‘ would also be useful in the circumstances.”

With straightforward instructions, over 2,000 recipes, and helpful illustrations, “How to Cook Everything” takes kitchen technique back to the basics and has plenty of substitution suggestions, too (helpful if you can’t find certain ingredients in the post-apocalyptic world).

Buy it here



“I Seem To Be a Verb” by R. Buckminster Fuller

Lori Salmon at the library’s Mid-Manhattan location recommends R. Buckminster Fuller’s “I Seem To Be a Verb,” because “Bucky is a neo-futurist, his housing designs are energy-efficient, and this book is fun to read about where we live and where we are going.”

This book is pretty strange to read — it’s printed to be read front-to-back before turning the book upside down and reading it again back-to-front — but its graphic design and ideas elevate it to a must-read.

Buy it here



“Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino

“The book I would give to people starting a new utopia is Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities,'” said Thomas Knowlton of MyLibraryNYC. “On the surface, it is made up of fictional conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan (over a chess game) interspersed with 55 brief, fantastical accounts of cities visited by the Venetian explorer.”

“However,” Knowlton added, “the narrative builds to a dramatic and fitting conclusion, addressing the nature of urban spaces, the limits of language, and potential paths that might lead us away from dark, dystopian futures.”

Buy it here



“Living Off The Land” by Chris McNab

“A practical survival guide, like ‘Living Off The Land‘ by Chris McNab,” suggested Jessica Cline, of the NYPL’s Mid-Manhattan library, “because the uses of a homemade bone saw should not be underestimated.” 

With advice from pictures of edible wild plants to building a shelter in the dessert, this book has the rudimentary knowledge we’d need to survive.

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“Lost Horizon” by James Hilton

 “I’d suggest ‘Lost Horizon’ by James Hilton, said Jenny Baum of NYPL’s Jefferson Market location. “‘Lost Horizon‘ originated the term ‘Shangri-La’ and can be a bit difficult to get into, but I think it fits the bill here for envisioning utopias.”

This pacifist parable still inspires imaginations as it takes you to a secret Utopia. Even though it was written in the ’30s, it remains remarkably vibrant and contemporary.

Buy it here



“The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien

“I’d have to go with ‘The Lord of the Rings‘ by J.R.R. Tolkien,” said Joshua Soule of the Spuyten Duyvil NYPL. “Something meaty that I could sink many hours into over and over again and find something new every time.”

Perhaps one of the greatest fantasy stories ever told, “The Lord of the Rings” remains a legendary classic with its wizards, hobbits, elves, dwarfs, and one ring to rule them all. 

Buy it here



“Lord of the Flies” by William Golding

“Some of my selections fall into the category of cautionary tales, like ‘Lord of the Flies‘ by William Golding,” said Louis Moore, a librarian at the NYPL’s Mid-Manhattan location. “I think it’s important to know our history so that we don’t repeat the bad parts.” 

Golding takes readers to an island where English school boys have been stranded. They first try and establish rules and order, but chaos and anarchy descend upon them. “Lord of the Flies” takes a harsh look at what’s bubbling under society’s surface.

Buy it here



“One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Jessica Cline of the NYPL’s Mid-Manhattan Library recommended ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude‘ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, because “the magnificence of ice is a wonder to remember, as is the importance of family traditions and the trials of founding a community, and, of course, for the pleasure in reading it.”

Filled with magical realism, the story begins with José Arcadio Buendía dealing with the shadows of a civil war and the ghost of the man he killed. The story covers 100 years as each generation of the Buendía family is weighed down by past mistakes and spirals towards destruction.

Buy it here



“On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin

“I would suggest Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species‘ so we wouldn’t have to go through figuring that out all over again,” said Kathie Coblentz of the Rare Books Cataloging section of the NYPL.

Charles Darwin traveled to the Galapagos Islands and discovered one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 19th-century-world — evolution. The concept of evolution and natural selection continues to have a major impact on modern scientific theories, politics, and religious discourse.

Buy it here



“Parable of the Sower” by Octavia E. Butler

“I would say Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Parable of the Sower‘ series,” said Ian Baran of of NYPL’s Yorkville division. “While far from using these books (or any book for that matter) for a foundation of a new memory or survival, as it would be better to start anew, the story highlights the importance of community building and sharing, while focusing on empathy rather than destruction.”

The story follows Lauren Olamina who sets out into America after her community is destroyed and society as a whole is crumbling. She begins to inspire followers and build a new religion under the idea that “God is Change.”

Buy it here



“The Poetry Home Repair Manual” by Ted Kooser

“I would recommend former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s ‘The Poetry Home Repair Manual,’ which is not only a guidebook for writing and revising poems, but also a testament to the power of poetry as a means of reflection, communication, and inspiration,” said Susie Heimbach of the Mulberry Street NYPL location.

“What better way to start a new utopia than with poetry?” she added.

Buy it here



“Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe

“Rebuilding or survival stories like ‘Robinson Crusoe‘ by Daniel Defoe,” suggested Lois Moore of the Mid-Manhattan NYPL branch. “Lots of ingenuity and thinking outside the box.”

Perhaps inspired by a real life shipwreck survivor, this book looks at how to keep going despite unthinkable odds and build shelter, find food, and live on.

Buy it here



“World Made By Hand” by James Howard Kunstler

“This question immediately called to mind James Howard Kunstler’s ‘World Made By Hand‘ series,” Jenny Baum, a librarian at the NYPL’s Jefferson Market location, said.

This speculative look at what might happen if oil wells suddenly ran dry and the world’s economy broke down is an all-too-realistic look at the dawn of the apocalypse.

Buy it here



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