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Here's one Atwood novel you'll never get to read
September 5, 2014 12:56 AM   Subscribe

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.
Margaret Atwood's next novel won't be published until 2114. (Katie Paterson, the Future Library, Katie Paterson previously))
posted by MartinWisse (50 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting challenge, to write something that engages people whose preoccupations you can only guess. Write about now or then? Allow the text to revolve around the nature of deposited texts or try to ignore the circumstances? Offer ancestral voices or mock our inability to foresee the future?
posted by Segundus at 1:08 AM on September 5


A Story as Sharp as a Knife on Amazon.
posted by viggorlijah at 1:54 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


One * more* Atwood novel I'll never get to read, perhaps. I have nothing against her, but am no longer the completist I once thought I might be. Very interesting, in a time-capsule-y sense. Sounds like fun to be a part of. I hope she goes nuts.
posted by Earthtopus at 2:11 AM on September 5


Will be interesting for someone (if there still is anyone) in 2114 to see how much of The Handmaid's Tale or the Maddadam trilogy has come true in the meantime.
posted by rd45 at 2:14 AM on September 5 [3 favorites]


and in 2114, the trees will be cut down to provide the paper for the texts to be printed – and, finally, read.

Except no one will have the technology to turn trees into paper books anymore.
posted by pracowity at 2:43 AM on September 5 [14 favorites]


I love this idea!

Something along the lines of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887 might be apropos.
posted by fairmettle at 2:44 AM on September 5


Interesting idea, but the book should probably be laser etched on metal plates or something. You know, because of the impending nanoMech/GreyGoo Apocalypse of '47.
posted by zardoz at 2:56 AM on September 5


One * more* Atwood novel I'll never get to read, perhaps.

Perhaps? Do you plan on being around to read a book in 2114?
posted by pracowity at 4:22 AM on September 5


If a tree falls somewhere in Nordmarka, will the Snowman be around to hear it?
posted by lalochezia at 5:10 AM on September 5 [2 favorites]


What can this strange device be?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 5:13 AM on September 5 [2 favorites]


Except no one will have the technology to turn trees into paper books anymore.

Let's hope not. I'd like to think we will have evolved from that wastefulness by then.
posted by Brockles at 5:24 AM on September 5 [2 favorites]


One * more* Atwood novel I'll never get to read, perhaps.

Perhaps? Do you plan on being around to read a book in 2114?


100 years is a long time for something to not go according to plan. The book might get leaked, or the project might be canceled, or after the author's death drafts might be made public, or any other number is things might happen.
posted by burnmp3s at 5:28 AM on September 5


It's an interesting concept.

But, I'm pretty disappointed that the end result involves cutting-down a stand of 100-year-old trees. Depending on how society turns, those trees may be considered some of the most ancient still standing in 2114 (yes, that's a highly pessimistic view, I know). Not to mention turning wood pulp into paper is one of the more environmentally-unfriendly processes.

Why not plant fields of cotton and use non-industrial processes (i.e. no bleaching, no chemicals) to pulp and hand-form sheets of paper over the intervening 100 years, then print the books using the paper? Good cotton rag paper will easily survive that long.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:28 AM on September 5 [6 favorites]


The only very long projects I can think of, that will take multiple generations to complete, are art projects like this. There have been eras when people took on longer projects (like building cathedrals, or constructing some of the land art that still survives) but partly because of technology that allows us to construct more quickly and largely because of political and social processes that privilege the immediate, we mostly don't do this anymore.

Maybe that's for the best in some ways (we also no longer use coerced labor, which undoubtedly helped create some of those massive, multigenerational projects), but I think we've lost something too, and I'm not sure that even interesting art projects like this are a real replacement.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:30 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


Thorzdad: "Why not plant fields of cotton and use non-industrial processes"

Cotton won't grow in Oslo ... yet.
posted by Mitheral at 6:16 AM on September 5 [3 favorites]


This is an interesting concept, but a terrible idea to execute. I mean, at one point in history humans lost the recipe for cement. On the other hand, maybe this could work out...I will put my work into a future capsule, and my company can pay me for it now.
posted by Lardmitten at 6:18 AM on September 5


From the headline I thought she was going to release one immaculate copy of her book Wu-Tang style.
posted by GrapeApiary at 6:23 AM on September 5 [2 favorites]


I wonder how the manuscripts are being stored. Hopefully not on a Jaz drive.
posted by kmz at 6:29 AM on September 5 [5 favorites]


This is a ridiculous concept, and a total waste of time. Art for the living, I say. If they could have built cathedrals in less than a century, they would have. This is just showing off.

Though I have to say, one line ("the Future Library trust, made up of literary experts...") did make me laugh.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:33 AM on September 5 [5 favorites]


But art is very often ridiculous and a waste of time. Often that's exactly the point. It's still interesting. In fact, I'd argue one thing that separates art from everything else is that there's no sensible or justifiable reason for its existence, in basic utilitarian terms. Art is often built on unnecessary inconvenience, which can open up new ways of thinking about or perceiving things.

In this case, perhaps both Atwood and Paterson want us to do some longer-term, multi-generational thinking. One of our problems, globally, is we humans have real terrible trouble thinking in terms beyond the next five years or so.
posted by erlking at 6:39 AM on September 5 [2 favorites]


You seem to be dismissing performance art in general. Painting with that broad a brush, novels themselves could be described as ridiculous and a total waste of time.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:40 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


I hereby request that erkling plant a stand of trees and delay publishing his last comment for 100 years.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:41 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


Except no one will have the technology to turn trees into paper books anymore.

This is my nightmare dystopian future.
posted by echocollate at 7:01 AM on September 5 [2 favorites]


In fact, I'd argue one thing that separates art from everything else is that there's no sensible or justifiable reason for its existence, in basic utilitarian terms.

I like to think reading fiction has made me more empathetic toward others and given me insight into human behavior, the utility of which is that I'm more socially adaptable. But maybe that's just my own fantasy.
posted by echocollate at 7:07 AM on September 5 [3 favorites]


It will be up against the next installment of A Song of Fire and Ice.
posted by srboisvert at 7:58 AM on September 5 [4 favorites]


Bizarre. And also the sort of thing that will only make sense for already-successful, financially-stable authors, who are the only ones for whom it would make any sense to put the work into writing an entire book knowing you'll never get any of the royalty stream.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 8:10 AM on September 5 [2 favorites]


"Once upon a time, there was a publisher who offered me cash up front for something that wouldn't see print until long after my death.

I took the money, dashed this off, and got back to work on something that would earn out. Sod off, future!"
posted by Zed at 8:15 AM on September 5 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty disappointed that the end result involves cutting-down a stand of 100-year-old trees.

If it were for toilet paper, I could understand your point - but for books? Books making an artistic point about time and nature?!?

It reminds me of this unforgettable story told by Gregory Bateson and reprinted in The Next Whole Earth Catalog in 1980:
The Oak Beams Of New College, Oxford

“New College, Oxford, is of rather late foundation, hence the name. It was probably founded around the late 16th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top. These might be eighteen inched square, and twenty feet long.

“Some five to ten years ago, so I am told, a busy entomologist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams, and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because where would they get beams of that caliber nowadays?

“One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be on College lands some oak. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country. So they called the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him about oaks.

“And he pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wondering when you’d be askin’.”

“Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for four hundred years. “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

“A nice story. That’s the way to run a culture.”
posted by fairmettle at 8:20 AM on September 5 [29 favorites]


Except no one will have the technology to turn trees into paper books anymore.

Did y'all read the linked article?

"A printing press will be placed in the library to make sure those in charge in 2114 have the capability of printing books on paper."
posted by kylej at 8:20 AM on September 5 [4 favorites]


What pretentious twaddle. She's optimistic that anyone will care to dig this book up in 100 years. No particular dig to Ms. Atwood, but the number of popular fiction authors whose books are still sought out after 100 years is pretty small.

Then there's this: 'She predicted that the readers of 2114 might need "a paleo-anthropologist to translate some of it for them"' It's like she doesn't read and write English for a profession. Particularly bizarre to use the prefix "paleo-", suggesting some stone age thing. The contemporary equivalent would be "anyone with an undergraduate education who can work out a little Edwardian slang." Or maybe she's postulating the Singularity. The all powerful trans-consciousness won't be able to read 2014 English, but it will still be interested in an author's publicity stunt.
posted by Nelson at 8:22 AM on September 5 [8 favorites]


I would like to read this. Are Amazon doing pre-orders yet?
posted by markkraft at 8:56 AM on September 5 [5 favorites]


As long as Atwood sticks to words in the dictionary and not the Urban Dictionary I think it will be okay.
posted by Monochrome at 8:57 AM on September 5


You seem to be dismissing performance art in general. Painting with that broad a brush, novels themselves could be described as ridiculous and a total waste of time.

No, just this project in particular. I quite like live theatre. Sitting around and watching the grass grow (or a manuscript in a box), however, is absurd, even stupid. Whatever literary merit the books might have is lost for a few generations of readers for what is at best an obvious point.

Your extending the alleged dismissal to novels makes no sense. Novels are not performance art, they are static works that can be picked up at any time. Unless the author deliberately puts them off limits, as Ms Atwood is doing here. Which, again, I contend, is nonsense.

I'm not much a one for Ms Atwood, either, which is by the way, but as Nelson says, if past is any indication of future, interest in her work come 2114 is likely to be limited.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:45 AM on September 5


I remember once reading a comment (maybe on Metafilter?) about how someone was trying to ration her books so that they would still have new Margaret Atwood books to read as they got older. My friends have taken to referring to any kind of self-imposed rationing of any favorite artist's work as "Margaret Atwooding."

And now it's canon.

posted by you're a kitty! at 1:42 PM on September 5 [4 favorites]


I have a feeling that people are being dismissive of long-term projects like this or Jeff Bezos-funded Clock of the Long Now because of some sort of Ozymandias effect. They look at these projects and scoff, "look at these mortals attempt legacies to outlive the rest of us!" Maybe, but Stonehenge is still pretty cool, regardless if we know who built it or not.
posted by Apocryphon at 2:15 PM on September 5 [1 favorite]


True, but Stonehenge was built and then (presumably) used immediately. It was not built and then hidden away for 100 years for future Druids to enjoy.

The point is not that they are attempting legacies to outlive the rest of us, but that they are attempting to artificially manufacture such legacies. People may well be reading The Handmaid's Tale in 100 years because it's a good book and has a lot to say about the time in which it was written. There's no purpose to delaying the publication of these book other than gimmickry.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 2:28 PM on September 5


Atwood has long been involved in art about tech and the future of books, so this also makes some sense to me.
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:33 PM on September 5


There's no purpose to delaying the publication of these book other than gimmickry.

Agreed. There is no real justification for trying to immortalise a book of completely unknown quality or relevance to anything. Keeping history alive is one thing but it isn't history any more than a piece of my school book from 1983 is. Artificially trying to add significance to something by hiding it for a period is gimickry at best and wankery at worst.

The Stonehenge thing: That was something of enormous significance that lasted well past it's created significance and became historically significant because of it's original significance and purpose. An unpublished book is.... not even a blip in comparison. Arty farty. 'Art' for arts's sake.
posted by Brockles at 2:34 PM on September 5


'Art' for arts's sake.

God forbid.
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:42 PM on September 5 [1 favorite]


What I mean is: the art project isn't the book itself. The art is this conversation, and all the thinking you do about the future when you hear about this project, and all of the planning that's involved in long-long-term creative works. The books themselves might be good or they might be terrible, but now no one will be able to read them without this context. Which raises questions of the way we approach literature, and what an author's name means in how we judge their work, and how the age of the text affects our reading of it, and so on. This isn't a book promotion project and it isn't Stonehenge (what?). It isn't meant to be either. It's conceptual art.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:38 PM on September 5 [4 favorites]


I have a feeling that people are being dismissive of long-term projects like this or Jeff Bezos-funded Clock of the Long Now because of some sort of Ozymandias effect

I lept to that comparison at first too. But the Clock is a much more interesting project. First, it's an artifact you can see now, touch now, contemplate now. It's not some secret we have to wait 100 years to get to experience. Second, the Clock is solving a very hard problem in an interesting way that makes us reflect both on technology and the endeavor of human artifact. And, indeed, Ozymandias. It's fascinating to me.

By contrast, Ms. Atwood is putting a book in a time capsule box. Well OK there's the extra disconnect of the book not being printed yet, the paper not yet grown. But in an era of Kindle books and SnapChat that doesn't seem very provocative.

One other stunt this reminds me of is Jason Rohrer's Chain World, a Minecraft world that only exists on a single USB key that's passed from player to player. Looks like that fizzled out rather quickly, too bad.
posted by Nelson at 4:51 PM on September 5 [1 favorite]


kylej: "Did y'all read the linked article?

"A printing press will be placed in the library to make sure those in charge in 2114 have the capability of printing books on paper."
"

Yes, but will they be able to turn wood into paper? It's not a trivial process especially if you need the consistency to run it through a printing press. 100 years from now it may seem as quaint as using Baleen (whale bone) in women's undergarments.
posted by Mitheral at 5:17 PM on September 5 [1 favorite]


So say this had been done in 1915 and next year we were going to unlock the hidden book for a significant author of that time, say Romain Rolland the Nobel prize laureate for literature that year. And the next year, another text.

We would be revisiting Rolland's works and anticipating a new text, excited about the project coming to a close, the first trees to be felled (a forest can be trimmed for wood without destroying it, especially a carefully planted forest intended for slow wood production) and people would be visiting the forest and walking through it, discussing what Rolland's book would be, the next author to come, the people in 1915 who thought this up and why.

It would be a gift from the past to now. Someone in 1915 writing for readers now, not then, for an audience not yet born. It would/will be extraordinary.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:40 PM on September 5 [4 favorites]


It's also an extra incentive for us not to destroy our civilization/species/planet in the next century, so that we'll all be able to enjoy these works.
posted by Apocryphon at 6:43 PM on September 5


We would be revisiting Rolland's works and anticipating a new text

Or would we be cursing that Roland was so foolish as to lock this book up for 100 years? And you're presuming that the anticipated text is any good, and that people are engaged with the 100 year waiting project. I'm not sure Atwood commands all that optimism.

Another analogy is Mark Twain's embargoed autobiography. He insisted it be held for 100 years after his death, presumably to allow him the opportunity for candor. It was a minor Big Deal when it came out, but mostly it just confirmed that Twain in his later years was diminished and bitter.
posted by Nelson at 6:57 PM on September 5


Yes, but will they be able to turn wood into paper? It's not a trivial process especially if you need the consistency to run it through a printing press. 100 years from now it may seem as quaint as using Baleen (whale bone) in women's undergarments.

Now people have an excuse to either remember or learn how to do it. Surely that, along with maintaining the protection of some trees and various other memories or laws or objects or processes (of culture or machine), is the point.
posted by tychotesla at 10:21 PM on September 5


I think this is an amazing idea, art for the sake of itself. Margaret Atwood seems the perfect author to start with: I wonder who will be next year's?
posted by RainyJay at 5:05 AM on September 6


I'm pretty disappointed that the end result involves cutting-down a stand of 100-year-old trees.

If it were for toilet paper, I could understand your point - but for books? Books making an artistic point about time and nature?!?

It reminds me of this unforgettable story...:

The Oak Beams Of New College, Oxford


Yeah, that's a great story -- about oak beams! Oak beams have to be thick. I'm no paper-maker, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't require 10x10s. Why would you cut down trees of what, at least 30" diameter and 80' tall and then pulp them? That sounds wasteful.

This project would be much more awesome if they were to mill the wood for beams to build a library, then print, say, just three copies of every book using the wood chip remainders.
posted by salvia at 10:43 AM on September 6


For anyone arriving late to this FPP, here's a follow-up to the Gregory Bateson story I quoted above regarding the oak beams of New College, Oxford.

My familiarity with the story was from decades ago when it appeared in The Next Whole Earth Catalog, but it appears to have generated some skepticism about it's veracity in the interim. In my current scanning of the controversy I can't locate absolute proof whether it is true or apocryphal. However, this link to the Long Now Foundation provides some compelling evidence in favor of the truth of the story.

Matt Dubuque writes the following:
"I would simply point out that the story was originally related to Stewart Brand by our mutual mentor Gregory Bateson.

Gregory's father, William Bateson, was a renowned 19th century naturalist at Cambridge University who actually translated Mendel's work on breeding peas from the original work in German into English.

William Bateson also coined the term "genetics", in the early 1900s so this story of the oak beams comes from an extraordinarily distinguished line of British scientific family spanning centuries along the lines of the Darwins and the Huxleys.

The Batesons actually had leadership roles as dons of Cambridge dating back to 1762.

William Bateson started off specializing in insects and butterflies and likely recited the story to Gregory Bateson (who conveyed it to Stewart Brand and myself) after hearing it from his naturalist and insect studying colleagues at Oxford University.

Recall that this is a VERY small and distinguished community of entomological scholars at the time at Oxford and Cambridge and just because some accountant at Oxford had never heard of it proves nothing at all.

I stake my belief on the most honored traditions in Western science and the veracity and distinction of the Bateson family, one of the finest in the world.

The story is true. The Oxford bursar, despite his very vocal crusade, simply is not in the loop."
Additionally, here is Stewart Brand (whom the link notes, 'actually chased it all down and verified it'), telling the story in his BBC series How Buildings Learn.
posted by fairmettle at 3:03 AM on September 7 [2 favorites]


That is really interesting, fairmettle. Thanks for sharing that.
posted by salvia at 12:04 AM on September 8 [1 favorite]


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