Future Library

FUTURE LIBRARY. It sounds like something that should involve book trucks that hover and holographic librarians and, somehow, laser books. It is a pretty evocative phrase, or idea.

It also turns out to be a real thing that Margaret Atwood became the first author to contribute a book to, last week (after I had written something in lieu of a blog entry because I didn’t have an idea, sigh). I’m still not sure what I think about it. As far as I understand it, is that the books placed in the Future Library will remain unread and unpublished until 2114. Every year, another author will be invited to contribute something. They’ve already planted 1,000 trees in Norway that will, in 2114, be ready to be harvested and used to make the paper to print all the books.

The Future Library is the brainchild of a Scottish artist named Katie Paterson who I confess to knowing nothing at all about, beyond this project. It’s one of those things that I’m not entirely sure I understand.

My first reaction (because I am a terrible person) is that it seems a little naive, although that’s not quite the right word for it. My thinking is this – how many authors from 100 years ago are people today interested in reading? The number is relatively low. I think we’d all be excited by a previously unknown Jules Verne novel, or Virginia Woolf story, but would there be intense anticipation of a new Benjamin Disraeli novel? Outside of a relatively small group, I kind of doubt it. People would go bananas over a new play by William Shakespeare, of course, and to a lesser extent for one by Christopher Marlowe, but if a the discovery of a new Thomas Dekker play was announced? A particular group of academics would get Very Excited. Probably some people in the theatre end of things would as well. The bulk of the world would, at best, go ‘hmm, neat, I guess?’ and that would be it.

So, how many of the Future Library’s contributors will be Vernes and Woolfs? When the doors (so to speak) of the project open, will people be excited, or asking “who are these people?” There’s no way to know. Obviously the people running the project will do their best to pick artists whose appeal they expect to endure. It’s a heck of a gamble.

It’s not unreasonable to wonder about language as well, I suppose. Language does evolve over the years and so the readers of the future may struggle a bit with the earlier entries, although honestly if you look at English from the 1900s and English today it hasn’t changed much. Margaret Atwood’s book will not be Chaucer to them, at least not linguistically. Barring, of course, some kind of dramatic shift in things.

There is, I suppose, an element of hubris. The assumption that, over the years, the forest will get preserved the way it is supposed to, that there will be people who take over for Ms. Paterson and continue to recruit new contributors and everything gets taken care of between now and then. And that then people are excited by the contents when the whole thing opens. That, I guess, was my initial, pessimistic, reaction.

On the other hand, or maybe because of the above, there is something basically hopeful and generous about the whole thing. That in 100 years, people will care about books and love them and read all the things stored up in the Future Library and love those too. In a sense, it’s an enormous gift to people several generations removed from us, and a selfless one for most of the artists because they will never see the reaction to the whole thing.

I said a few weeks ago that I like hopeful stories these days and I think this is ultimately one of those, even if I (I think) don’t entirely understand the concept behind the Future Library. I know I like the hope and generosity of spirit behind the idea. A lot of times our society is very focused on the immediate and the short term and what the cost and return on things will be right now. I think we might benefit from a little more of this kind of ambitious, hopeful, long-term thinking.

I remember being really struck when I learned that medieval cathedrals took long enough to build that the people who started them often knew perfectly well that they would not live to see the finished building. They started them anyway, all the people who designed them and worked on them and found the funding for them, because they believed it was important and that doing something for people in the future that they would never know was a worthwhile aim.

I guess in it’s way, the Future Library is like that, and so in the end I admire the spirit of it and hope the whole thing goes wonderfully.

I also can’t resist a certain level of frustration at knowing, with absolute certainty, that I won’t be here to see how it works out.

That’s a whole other issue, though. Maybe next week.

Still want those laser books, though.

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2 thoughts on “Future Library

  1. I remember the first time I read Ender’s Game (I believe that is the name of the book) and how similar the “desk” was to a laptop. Then I found the book had been written decades prior to my reading. Something about it really made me wonder at how far he was able to see into the future. I like the idea of a future library as it is similar to time capsules people love to bury. I might try to stay alive another hundred years.

    • emaymustgo says:

      Older SF is great that way, for what are now old visions of the future. Sometimes they get things surprisingly, almost alarmingly right, sometimes you get remarkable divergent images of futures that never came to pass. Endless fun!

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