Book Review: The Knowledge

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch by Lewis Dartnell

Imagine there was a mass die-off of human beings, perhaps from some pestilence or a Game of Thrones season premiere party that got way out of hand, but that left most of the infrastructure of civilization still standing. You are in the shadow of a remnant of humans left, and you have the goal of not only surviving, but thriving. The goal of this book is a whirlwind account of how some of the basic parts of our modern civilization functions and how you could get it back up and running.

One theme throughout the book is leapfrogging over the historical development of technology straight to more modern equivalents. There are a number of innovations in our history that took a bizarrely long amount of time to figure out, like the wheelbarrow, buttons for clothing, and simple lenses. Numerous undersung technologies are praised for how much they’ve done for modern society, like the combine harvester and the periodic table. More in line with the intended theme of the book, there are multiple “prepping” tips like how to purify water with some basic tools like sand, charcoal, and water bottles or the fact that most packaged drugs and canned foods can be good long past their published expiry dates.

Some highlights include the chapters on chemistry, about how you can go from basically nothing to a reasonably advanced chemical industry producing fertilizers and steel. Or the myriad ways you can use pieces of junk to construct a radio, as has been done in POW camps. One interesting suggestion is to quickly get out of the cities but live on the outskirts, regularly plundering them and treating them as the most lucrative mines in history. The Knowledge would be fairly suitable, all told, as a general introduction to the lay reader on the fundamentals of numerous branches of modern science.

As a “prepper” manual I’m not sure how well Dartnell succeeds, as I am entirely unfamiliar with that genre. It’s not really a survival guide for living outdoors, nor is it intended to be. Much is left out as it’s a rather short popular account, for example almost nothing is said of mathematics. I read it more as a rapid coverage of many of the fundamentals of modern civilization with lots of neat facts spicing it throughout. One could say it’s a study guide for a question I’ve often asked myself: “If I were magically sent back in time, how much of the modern world could I recreate?” I think it’s an interesting way to focus your attention on what you do and do not know, and The Knowledge is a nice introduction to answering such a question.

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