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Margaret Atwood and The Future Library project – ‘an act of optimism’

‘In Norway a forest is growing. In 100 years it will become an anthology of books.’ 

A few weeks back I noticed an article on Twitter about one of my favourite authors, Margaret Atwood. Atwood had just completed a piece of writing that would not be read by anyone for a hundred years. She had become the first contributor to The Future Library, an artwork devised by Katie Paterson. Each year from this until 2114, a committee will invite a writer to contribute a piece of writing. It could be fiction, non-fiction, poetry or even a single word but that piece of writing would be locked away from human eyes for a century. Meanwhile, a forest in Norway will be slowly growing – its fate: to become the paper upon which one hundred copies of an anthology will be printed. The final volume will contain all one hundred contributions. I was enthralled.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of being in the audience at The Flipside Festival of Brazilian Literature and Arts at Snape, where Atwood was speaking alongside Brazilian author, Ana Maria Machado. I took the opportunity to ask her about the project and to question how both authors saw the future of the ‘book’ given the changes of the last few years. As a reader and as a publisher, it’s something that I’ve mused on many times. Will people always want to read? Does the ‘book’ have an expiration date?

Atwood is clearly passionate about the project. Aside from her writing, another reason I admire Atwood is her progressiveness and forward-thinking approach to her work. She has written numerous online only works including a story on reading/writing app WattPad with Naomi Alderman and created The Long Pen a remote signing device. It’s clear from this, as well as from works like Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale, that Atwood spends a lot of time contemplating the future. Speaking about The Future Library, she pointed out that the writers whose words would eventually fill the pages of the last volume of the anthology and those that would invite them to contribute, were not even born yet. It’s an ‘act of optimism’ she said. This really struck a chord with me.

I’ve written before about the fact that publishing anything is an act of faith. The Future Library project is perhaps the ultimate act of faith in literature and the longevity of ‘the story’ – creating a collection of writing for an audience you cannot possibly know. Will people still recognise a ‘book’ in a hundred years? Will they still want to read it? Will there even be people? All these questions are answered with a resounding ‘yes’ by what is happening at The Future Library.  It’s more than an artwork, it’s a statement to the world that the ‘book’ will endure. It might not be in a form we would recognise today. Both Atwood and Machado pointed out that our ancestors wouldn’t recognise a paperback and likewise there is every chance that what constitutes a book in a hundred years would be utterly alien to us today. What will endure is the written word, ‘the stories’ and we can surely have faith in that.

Caroline Goldsmith

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This entry was posted on October 6, 2014 by in Publishing, writing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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