The “Most Secretive Library in the World”: The Future Library Will Collect 100 Original Manuscripts by Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell & More, to Be Read for the First Time in 2114

Should intel­li­gent life of some form or anoth­er still inhab­it the plan­et in the year 6939, such beings might come upon an “800-pound tube of an alloy of cop­per and chromi­um called Cupaloy” that was buried 50 feet beneath what was once Queens. The first time cap­sule, low­ered under the West­ing­house exhib­it at the 1939 New York World’s Fair con­tains “35 items one might find in any run-of-the-mill Smith fam­i­ly house­hold,” as Jin­woo Chong writes at Untapped Cities, “includ­ing copies of Life mag­a­zine, a Sears and Roe­buck cat­a­log, cig­a­rettes and seeds of wheat, corn, alfal­fa and soy.”

The Future Library, a time cap­sule-like project present­ly in the works, takes a very dif­fer­ent approach to the con­cept. “A for­est is grow­ing in Nor­way,” explains an intro­duc­to­ry video on cre­ator Katie Paterson’s web­site. “In 100 years it will become an anthol­o­gy of books.” The books that will be print­ed from 1,000 trees plant­ed in Nord­mar­ka, north of Oslo, will not, how­ev­er, trans­mit min­ing and nav­i­ga­tion­al instruc­tions, but a full range of human emo­tion and per­son­al expe­ri­ence. Or so we might assume. Unlike the 1939 time cap­sule, we’ll nev­er know what’s inside them.

Scot­tish artist Pater­son has planned a library of 100 cre­ative works of fic­tion, non-fic­tion, and poetry—one man­u­script sub­mit­ted every year until 2114, when she intends them all to be print­ed in 3,000 copies each and read for the first time. Almost none of us will be there to wit­ness the event, yet “the timescale is… not vast in cos­mic terms,” she says. “It is beyond our cur­rent lifes­pans, but close enough to come face to face with it, to com­pre­hend and rel­a­tivize,” unlike the incom­pre­hen­si­ble future of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine or the far-off world for which West­ing­house designed their cap­sule.

Nonethe­less, tech­no­log­i­cal, and per­haps even evo­lu­tion­ary, change has increased expo­nen­tial­ly in the past sev­er­al decades, as have the pos­si­bil­i­ties for glob­al extinc­tion events. Mar­garet Atwood, the first author to sub­mit an unpub­lished, unread man­u­script to the Future Library in 2014, is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly less than san­guine about the exis­tence of future read­ers for her man­u­script, enti­tled Scrib­bler Moon. “It’s very opti­mistic to believe that there will still be peo­ple in 100 years,” she says in the short video above, and “that those peo­ple will still be read­ing.” Atwood imag­ines a near-future that may not even rec­og­nize our time.

Which words that we use today will be dif­fer­ent, archa­ic, obso­lete? Which new words will have entered the lan­guage? We don’t know what foot­notes we will need. Will they have com­put­ers? Will they call them some­thing else? What will they think smart­phones are? Will that word still exist?

Writ­ers for the project are cho­sen by the Future Library’s board of trustees. After the can­ny selec­tion of Atwood, they chose the equal­ly on-the-nose David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, who calls the library “the Ark of Lit­er­a­ture.” It is a strange ark, filled with ani­mals few peo­ple liv­ing now will like­ly ever see. “The world’s most secre­tive library,” The Guardian calls it.  In 2016, Ice­landic nov­el­ist and poet Sjón sub­mit­ted his mys­te­ri­ous text. The fourth work came from Turk­ish nov­el­ist Elif Shafak, who named the project “a sec­u­lar act of faith.”

The lat­est writer cho­sen is Man Book­er-win­ning South Kore­an nov­el­ist Han Kang, who described the Future Library as a lit­er­al expres­sion of the writer’s thoughts on their duty to pos­ter­i­ty: “I can­not sur­vive 100 years from now, of course. No one who I love can sur­vive, either. This relent­less fact has made me reflect on the essen­tial part of my life. Why do I write? Who am I talk­ing to, when I write?” Did Jane Austen imag­ine her read­ers of 100 years lat­er? Could she ever have imag­ined us?

Not only is the Future Library an act of lit­er­ary faith, but it is an eco­log­i­cal one. “The next 96 years do not look promis­ing for the seedlings,” writes Merve Emre at The New York Times, “which are more vul­ner­a­ble than their ances­tors to all man­ner of man-made dis­as­ters.” The project sym­bol­i­cal­ly binds togeth­er the fates of the book and the trees, mak­ing “the phys­i­cal­i­ty of cul­ture pal­pa­ble by insist­ing that we con­front the long, labo­ri­ous process of pre­serv­ing lan­guage.”

In 2020, the col­lec­tion of man­u­scripts will be moved to a “Silent Room” in Oslo, a “womb-shaped cham­ber fac­ing the for­est, lined with wood from its trees.” Vis­i­tors can come and ven­er­ate these secre­tive future relics in their rib­bon-wrapped gray box­es. But their contents—should the ambi­tious endeav­or go as planned—will remain as elu­sive as the shape of our col­lec­tive future 100 years from now.

via NYTimes

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Books Could Be Used to Rebuild Civ­i­liza­tion?: Lists by Bri­an Eno, Stew­art Brand, Kevin Kel­ly & Oth­er For­ward-Think­ing Minds

Bertrand Russell’s Advice to Peo­ple Liv­ing 1,000 Years in the Future: “Love is Wise, Hatred is Fool­ish”

Aldous Hux­ley to George Orwell: My Hell­ish Vision of the Future is Bet­ter Than Yours (1949)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • David Markham says:

    Wow. I thought I’d seen the apex of pre­ten­tious, use­less activ­i­ty before. (Most celebri­ty polit­i­cal action, for instance.) But this takes the cake. “A sec­u­lar act of faith.” “Ven­er­ate these secre­tive future relics.” You peo­ple real­ly do have a hole in your souls, which you are des­per­ate to fill, but unwill­ing to fol­low the only path that will do so.

    I’ll pray for you.

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