Margaret Atwood to leave unread manuscript for posterity as part of The Future Library project

September 5, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

When one thinks of a futurist, one likely pictures a bespectacled tech-industry CEO or a scientist toiling away in an obscure nuclear laboratory. One probably doesn’t think of a Man Booker Prize–winning novelist. But Margaret Atwood has long had one eye on the future, and now she’s backing that up with a new piece of writing that, if all goes according to plan, no one but her will read for the next hundred years.

According to Alison Flood in the Guardian, Atwood has teamed with the Scottish artist Katie Paterson on what is being called The Future Library project: a sealed archive of manuscripts – one per year for the next century – that will be kept in Oslo until the various works are printed in the year 2114.

From the Guardian:

Atwood has just been named as the first contributor to an astonishing new public artwork. The Future Library project, conceived by the award-winning young Scottish artist Katie Paterson, began, quietly, this summer, with the planting of a forest of 1,000 trees in Nordmarka, just outside Oslo. It will slowly unfold over the next century. Every year until 2114, one writer will be invited to contribute a new text to the collection, and in 2114, the trees will be cut down to provide the paper for the texts to be printed – and, finally, read.

What is remarkable about this project – from all perspectives – is its optimism. Its very premise presumes that humans a) will still be reading books in the year 2114; b) will still be reading books on paper (take that, Jeff Bezos); c) will not, in the interim, have so ravished the planet that it will have been rendered uninhabitable; and d) will not have otherwise killed themselves off, or been killed off, by war, hubris, pestilence, famine, or the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

But futurists are inherently optimistic and, despite frequent criticisms as to her bitter anger (especially regarding that half of the human population in possession of an XY chromosome), Atwood has always been a peculiarly optimistic writer. (Satirists are almost by definition optimists, because they presume that human beings are capable of change.)

Indeed, there is much in The Future Library project that would seem to appeal to Atwood, not least the environmental aspect involved in the planting of one thousand trees. There is also the historical element tied in to the presence of a printing press, which will be added to the library to print the books when the project culminates; that piece of technology may in fact be an obsolete antique by 2114. And there is an undeniable element of faith: both Atwood and Paterson will have shuffled off this mortal coil before the project wraps up, so neither will be alive to see the work they have seeded bloom. “Sometimes it does hit me,” Paterson says in the Guardian, “Oh my God, if I live to ninety, what will it be like then? It’s very exciting as an artist.”

My own favourite part of Atwood’s response to this project involves her stated “pleasure” in the prospect of not being around when her work is finally read. “You don’t have to be around for the part when if it’s a good review the publisher takes credit for it and if it’s a bad review it’s all your fault.”

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