I haven't actually had any of my readers ask me this question, but I have thought about it. Before I give my answer, I must point out that it isn't the book that first got me interested in prepping, which would have been Prepare Today -- Survive Tomorrow, which I received as a gift as a teenager (and which I review here). (In reality, the very first book on prepping/survival that hooked me was My Side of the Mountain, which I read in grade school). Prepare Today--Survive Tomorrow is a great book--don't get me wrong--but it's focus is on surviving a post-nuclear war, and so it is very heavy on long-term preparations, building a bomb-shelter, fighting off the so-called "golden horde," and so forth. For someone new to prepping, to first read Prepare Today--Survive Tomorrow would be putting the cart before the horse.
Rather, having put thought into this and looking over the books I have in my small library or that I've read, my pick for a first book, and probably the best single reference for prepping is When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need To Survive When Disaster Strikes by Cody Lundin. I've reviewed it before, but to summarize: Lundin discusses the mental and emotional aspects of surviving; he covers what to do when the power is out, the gas is out, and the water isn't working, whatever the reason; how to stay warm; how to minimize use of fuel for cooking (haybox cooking); using your stored food or scavenging food; collecting and purifying water (in fact, probably the best discussion of water I've ever seen in survival book); issues with shelter; dealing with waste and excrement (even how to wipe your butt without toilet tissue); etc. He even discusses how to deal with deaths and, if necessary, disposing of dead bodies. It's all there. The weakest point of the book is self-defense, but that is because Lundin recognizes that is not his area of expertise, so his chapter on it is a Q&A format with a self-defense expert. But, in most disasters, self-defense against feral dogs or looters is probably going to be the least of your concerns; keeping yourself from freezing (or over-heating), or getting sufficient clean water, will be.
My runner up is the Handbook to Practical Disaster Preparedness for the Family by Arthur T. Bradley, Ph.D. I have the 2nd edition, but I see that there is now a third edition. This book is dry reading but is also very thorough. One thing it provides that is missing from many other books are example forms, checklists, and to-do lists. It covers how to survive natural and man-made disasters (pretty much anything short of a nuclear war), how to prepare for disasters, storing food and water, prepping your home, alternative sources of electricity, financial preparations, first-aid, long term survival issues, special points for those with special needs (e.g., handicapped or elderly persons), etc. While no one book covers everything, this book comes pretty close. The reason why this comes (a very close) second to Lundin's book, as a first prepper book, is because Lundin's book teaches skills and techniques for when you don't necessarily have the preps ready, or they fail; Bradley's book is pretty much only on how to prepare. (Note: a free alternative to Bradley's book is The LDS Preparedness Manual which is distributed online as a PDF. It covers many of the same topics as does Bradley, although--with the exception of food storage--not as thoroughly).
Other books with which to augment your survival library, in my opinion, would be:
- The Modern Survival Manual: Surviving the Economic Collapse by Fernando "Ferfal" Aguirre. Although this book's primary focus is surviving a financial collapse (his experience is with Argentina's economic meltdown), the books is full of practical tips applicable for any long term decline or recovery period.
- SAS Survival Guide (Collins Gem). This isn't necessarily the best, general wilderness survival book, but its pretty good, and this particular copy (the Collins Gem) is small enough to fit in a first aid kit or fanny pack--in other words, you can have it on you anytime you travel or go camping.
- Facing Violence: Preparing for the Unexpected by Rory Miller. (My review here). This is probably not a book that you generally would think of for prepping. But since I take the position that prepping has to be part of your everyday experience, and everyday prepping includes being prepared in the event that you are the victim of a crime, this book also belongs on your survival book shelf (or Kindle). The basic premise of this book is that the best way to avoid being the victim of violence is not to be in the position of being a victim in the first place. The author discusses in detail the warning signs of impending violence, discusses techniques of deescalating violence, some advice on what to do if that doesn't work (or you are surprised), and advice on the legal and physical consequences.
Of course, as you move past the basics, you will want books that delve more deeply into specific topics such as gardening, canning and food storage, recipes and tips for using your food storage, home repairs and maintenance, repairing other items, books on using or maintaining a firearm (if that is what you choose for self-defense), and so on. For instance:
- For those interested in primitive living or survival, Richard Grave's Bushcraft is a classic in the field for those interested in living--not just surviving--in a wilderness environment. Some of his materials and books are available online.
- There are many excellent books on gardening available, but what you want is something that helps you maximize your yield for a given space and input of work. A lot of people like Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening, although it is one that requires a great deal of preparation in the construction and installation of grow boxes and creating the ideal soil. Another one you might want to check out, that is specifically written for the prepping community, is Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening. If you have a bit more land then typical for the suburbs, there are also many books on small scale farming for homesteaders. If you have less room, there are books and guides on vertical gardening or growing food in limited spaces (e.g., on a patio).
- Of course, you will also want instructions on preserving and preparing your garden's bounty. Most canners and dehydrators come with instructions, including a selection of recipes, for their use, and more detailed books are available. A good, general, cookbook (e.g., from Good Housekeeping or Betty Crocker) is useful. There are also books specifically written for using your home food storage (e.g., All Things Provident: Inspiring ideas to help use your food storage, manage your finances, and prepare for emergencies by Tamara Price--my review here).
- A good first aid manual. Some recommendations can be found here.
- If you decide to use a firearm for self-defense, you at a minimum want a copy of the owner's manual for each firearm detailing the basic operation and take down of that firearm. If you don't have an owner's manual, they are sometimes available for order or download from the manufacturer. Failing that, I often see small booklets for sale at gun shows that cover operation and basic maintenance of specific models of firearms. If you are feeling more adventurous, an armorers manual or gunsmithing book for your firearm(s) would be useful. You may also want to get a book or other guide on the basics of shooting (e.g., Tactical Pistol Shooting: Your Guide to Tactics & Techniques that Work by Erik Lawrence, or Green Eyes & Black Rifles: Warriors Guide to the Combat Carbine by Kyle E. Lamb for you AR owners) or which cover more advanced tactics.
- Books on home maintenance and repairs, and the repair of other items (appliances, bicycles, vehicles, etc.). For instance, I have a few that are published by Reader's Digest that provide the basics of home maintenance or appliance repair. Although I don't have a copy, Home Depot has its own home maintenance book. Heck, the home inspector's report that we received when we bought our home came in a binder with a pretty good manual on home repair and maintenance, so you may already have such a book.
- Finally, if there is a particular disaster you are concerned about, there may be books or other materials that deal with preparation in more detail. For instance, as I noted above, there are books that specifically pertain to surviving a nuclear war (including Nuclear War Survival Skills which is available for free online, or Bruce Clayton's classic, Life After Doomsday, also available as a PDF).