JADE ON: The Future Library Project

Article published on June 20, 2016.

As a huge fan of the author David Mitchell (he of Cloud Atlas fame, not him off the telly), imagine my delight when I heard he’d just completed his latest novel. When would I be able to get my hands on this new book? 2114. Yes, 2114 as in 98 years. Ah, that may be a problem! You see, the book is part of a ground-breaking project called Future Library, which – ashamedly – despite being launched in 2014 I hadn’t heard of. I endeavoured to find out more.

Described as a public artwork, Future Library is the brainchild of Scottish artist Katie Paterson, in which one thousand trees have been planted in a forest near Oslo, Norway. The project will collect one original text by a different writer every year and in 100 years from the project’s inception, 2114, these one thousand trees will supply the paper to print the 100 manuscripts. The writers involved are asked to hand over one hard copy and one digital copy of their text, and not to discuss or show what they’ve written to anyone. The manuscripts will be held in ‘a specially designed room in the new Deichmanske Public Library’, which will open in 2019, but the texts will not be accessible to read until 2114. The authors are chosen to participate by a panel, including the artist herself as well as representatives from the library and the world of publishing, and are selected ‘for their outstanding contributions to literature and poetry and for their work’s ability to capture the imagination of this and future generations.’ Margaret Atwood was the first contributor, handing over her manuscript, about which all we know is the title Scribbler Moon, in May 2015. Last month, May 2016, David Mitchell added his own manuscript, again of which all we know is the teasingly enticing title, From Me Flows What You Call Time. And that’s all we have until 2114.

Despite my initial frustration at missing out on Mitchell’s work – I guess in a sense that is the universal dilemma of the reader, knowing that there will be thousands of books that one will never get to read – I couldn’t help but be utterly thrilled by the prospect of the Future Library project and heartened that it is being realised. For me, it is a recognition of the value of the written word and a commitment to ensuring that future generations, however the world may look, experience that value. That literature doesn’t get lost along the way in civilisation’s evolution. And I am in equal measures jealous and awestruck by those who will get to reap the benefits in 2114.

Indeed, imagine if the project had been set in motion 100 years ago and today we were uncovering hitherto unseen works by the likes of Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann, Rudyard Kipling, H G Wells, Henry James, Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, E M Forster, Edith Wharton, D H Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, and those are just some of the names from the first decade of the 100 years. Indeed, a project starting in 1915, for example, would have covered a whole generation of writers, a veritable gamut of writing periods and modes, as well as historical contexts and moments, right through until 2015. It’s just mind-blowing to get your head around the enormity of what a work would look like by 100 writers across the last century – and so inspiring. But also if you think about it a little depressing that we haven’t been able to see this. Which is why Future Library is so wonderful. Future readers will get an opportunity current readers could only long for. It’s a chance not only to read unseen texts by writers of old but in many ways it will also be a historical timeline, charting what authors are in vogue – indeed it will be interesting to see how many of the authors uncovered in 2114 are still well-known and have not faded into obscurity – but also the evolution in literature and society. And that readers will get to read works that have never been seen before is a true honour.

I can only dream about the prospect of there being another Jane Austen or Charles Dickens manuscript waiting in a vault to be read. But I will not begrudge future generations from benefitting from this project. It is one of the most important, inspiring and ambitious literary projects to ever have been launched and I am only disheartened that I will not get to experience it, though of course I can play my own game of What Books Published Now Would I Leave to Future Generations and Which Authors Would I Commission. Hopefully Future Library will only be the beginning and after Katie Paterson’s wonderful example, other innovations and projects will be launched to similarly celebrate and safeguard the future of literature. But I will be keeping a close eye on the project from now on and the annual selection of an author and hoping that future generations appreciate just how momentous this is. After all, they may be the only ones who get to read JK Rowling’s secret manuscript Harry Potter and the Middle-Aged Spread.

Jade Craddock
June 2016

For more go to http://www.katiepaterson.org/futurelibrary/

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