Can’t see the words for the trees

These books will not be published until the 22nd Century

Some authors have been known to grouch about the length of time its takes conventional publishers to release their books. Well, the writers taking part in the Future Library project will be dead and gone before their works find an audience – that’s the point

 By Mark Cantrell

 MANY writers worry about posthumous success, their works picked up for publication after they themselves have been packed away in their boxes (coffins), far too late to enjoy the recognition (or the royalties), but the authors taking part in the Future Library project relish the prospect of a 22nd Century book launch, even if it means they’ll only be there in spirit.

Okay, so a lot can happen in the space of a hundred years; given some of the increasingly near-apocalyptic projections around climate change, peak oil and resource depletion, not to mention old-fashioned human recalcitrance, there’s a hell of a lot that might go wrong in the meantime to leave this literary time capsule forever unopened.

But for now there’s plenty of optimism, not to mention the 1,000 trees planted specially for the project at the forest of Nordmarka, near Oslo in Norway. In time, these will be pulped to make the paper on which to print the collected authors’ works.

Future Library is a century-long public art project that aims, ultimately, to transform those trees into an anthology of books. Every year from 2014 until 2114, an author will be selected to contribute an unpublished manuscript to be held in a special repository, sealed away and never seen, until its publication in the 22nd Century.

Make no bones about it, most of the authors who contribute to this project will be dust long before those trees surrender their cellulose flesh to provide life for the manuscripts held in their century-long stasis. So too its creator.

At 75, Canadian author Margaret Atwood certainly will: as will the Scottish artist Katie Paterson, 33, who devised this century-long endeavour. But don’t we all hope to leave behind a little something of ourselves for the generations to come, some legacy of our existence, even if signing up to an arboreal literary mausoleum is a little, well, out there in the uncertain currents of time. Still, it’s one hell of a tribute to literature, and the way it has tangled its roots deep into the human experience.

”Future Library is a living, breathing, organic artwork, unfolding over 100 years,” said Paterson. “It will live and breathe through the material growth of trees – I imagine the tree rings as chapters in a book. The unwritten words, year by year, activated, materialised. The visitor’s experience of being in the forest, changing over decades, being aware of the slow growth of the trees containing the writers’ ideas like an unseen energy – that’s something that has to come into being.”

Atwood is one of the (too few) grand dames of the science fiction genre, though she herself has famously stepped back from claiming her writing as such, preferring to refer to it as more speculative in nature. She’s written poetry and fiction, both for adults and children, been translated into more than 40 languages, and has won numerous awards, including the Booker Prize, the Arthur C Clarke Award for best science fiction, and the Canadian Booksellers’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

One might say from her CV that she certainly doesn’t need the posterity of the Future Library project, but as a committed environmentalist and political activist, no doubt the Future Library is a little hard to resist. As the inaugural contributor, she certainly adds some gravitas to the affair.

”The longevity of this artwork will make it resonate with the people of Oslo for the next 100 years and it holds a treasure for future generations to enjoy,” said Anne Beate Hovind, project manager with Bjorvika Utvikling, the organisation that commissioned Paterson’s art project. “The warning voice of Margaret Atwood has resonated through our lives for decades. Her personal commitment to global and environmental issues makes her an ideal author for Future Library. I am moved by the thought that my descendents will receive this gift from her.”

Atwood, the author of The Handsmaid Tale, Oryx and Crake among others, is currently working on her manuscript and this will be handed over at a special event to be held in May 2015. From then, each and every year, one more author will be invited to add to the collection.

”I am very honoured, and also happy to be part of this endeavour,” said Atwood. “This project, at least, believes the human race will still be around in a hundred years. Future Library is bound to attract a lot of attention over the decades, as people follow the progress of the trees, note what takes up residence in and around them, and try to guess what the writers have put into their sealed boxes.”

The manuscripts will be held in trust at a specially designed room in the new Deichmanske Public Library, which is set to open in 2018 in Bjorvika, Oslo. According to Paterson, the room is intended to be a place of contemplation. It will be lined with wood from the forest, and the authors’ names and titles of their works will be on display, but the manuscripts will remain sealed away, ever a mystery; none shall read what they contain until their publication.

The artist will have a hand in selecting and inviting authors to contribute to the project in coming years, but obviously she’s not going to live forever. To that end, the project will be managed by the Future Library Trust, which will consist of leading publishers, editors and other curatorial types.

”Katie’s project offers depth, reflection and perspective,” said Kristin Danielsen, director of Deichmanske Bibliotek [Public Library], which will house the manuscripts. “Knut Hamsun famously said that ‘a hundred years from now, all is forgotten’. In this case, he could not be more wrong. Well, we might be forgotten. In 2114 none of us will be around, but the Future Library will. This artwork is like a century long pregnancy growing ever so slowly and ever so secretly, like a locked diary. This is a beautiful orchestra of time.”

Paterson added: “Future Library has nature, the environment at its core – and involves ecology, the interconnectedness of things, those living now and still to come. It questions the present tendency to think in short bursts of time, making decisions only for us living now.

”The timescale is 100 years, not vast in cosmic terms. However, in many ways the human timescale of 100 years is more confronting. It is beyond many of our current lifespans, but close enough to come face to face with it, to comprehend and relativise.”

An interesting perspective for sure. For those who might contemplate the vastness of cosmic time, the sheer indifference of those incomprehensible aeons, it is nevertheless the mayfly moments of human temporal spans that truly reveal the dispassionate cruelty of time.

We live in an era of rapid change, where technology is transforming everything in its path towards the future, vowing to wash away everything we might once have taken as solid and eternal; print is expected to be dead, the future undeniably digital. The tech gurus have decreed it so; what, then, for the trees in this anticipated post-analogue future?

A hundred years from now, the world might still turn, civilisation may well be as rowdy as it ever was, but can we be so certain that it will remember how to make a printing press, let alone bind a book? Or maybe we’ll have fallen so in love with those trees, we’d rather hug them close, rather than see them sacrificed for the revival of dormant works of century-old literature.

Time will tell. Until then, the trees will keep their authors’ secrets.

This article was orginally written for the author's blog and first appeared 6 September 2014

No comments

Powered by Blogger.