Audience, Historical Context, and the Future Library Project

The list of writers whose work achieved widespread recognition only posthumously is impressive: Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, and Zora Neale Hurston, to name a few. There’s a piquant poignancy to stories such as these; events may have conspired against these authors while they were alive, but now, at least, we appreciate their genius—a genius, moreover, that continues to resonate decades and even centuries later.

The Future Library project—the brainchild of artist Katie Patterson—changes the formula entirely. The authors asked to participate in the century-long undertaking will be well established to begin with, but the works they contribute to it will not be read by anyone now alive. The vaults will not be opened until 2014, at which point the books will at long last be made public, the paper for their printing furnished by the 1,000 trees Patterson recently had planted outside of Oslo. It is, in Patterson’s words, an effort to think beyond the present moment: “It questions the present tendency to think in short bursts of time, making decisions only for us living now.” It also, I think, raises interesting questions about the importance of historical moment when it comes to reading.

There is a more personal element to this for me as well. In theory, I can appreciate both the selflessness and thoughtfulness of Patterson’s project. Nonetheless, I have to confess that when I heard that Margaret Atwood would be the first writer to contribute, my initial thought was that Patterson could hardly have chosen a better author, and thus, given the timescale of the project, that she could hardly have chosen a worse author. Margaret Atwood was among the first “adult” writers I fell in love with; I happened upon The Handmaid’s Tale as a young teen, and then read The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake in rapid succession. Truth be told, I’ve had few chances to revisit Atwood since my high school binge, but she’s an author I’ve always intended to come back to, and for that reason, I find it almost unbearable to think that an Atwood manuscript—wholly complete and undoubtedly brilliant—will be kept out of reach until long after I’m gone.

Still, my reaction wasn’t entirely selfish. My second—and somewhat more reflective—thought was that we really cannot afford to have any writers who handle issues of gender and power with such nuance delay releasing their work for a century (and this is to say nothing of Atwood’s treatment of environmental issues).

To be sure, this says a lot about what I personally find valuable in a work of literature. I did, after all, combine my degree in English with a degree in Gender Studies. What’s more, I focused on a period of literature now famous largely for its attempts to represent an entire network of social systems, and to inquire into a range of social problems; regardless of whether one reads these novels as subverting or reinscribing the status quo, the depth and breadth of their social engagement means that nineteenth-century writers tend to be seen as very much of their historical moment. Atwood, I would argue, has a similar ability to zero in on the most urgent contemporary problems, which one might see as a reason to release the book more or less immediately.

Or maybe not. Paterson hopes that the writing that will make up the Future Library will offer a window into the past: “I think it’s important that the writing reflects maybe something of this moment in time, so when future readers open the book, they will have some kind of reflection of how we were living in this moment.” Historical specificity, in other words, could itself be a reason to delay release. I’m somewhat sympathetic to this idea—it does, after all, echo our common sense ideas about what a time capsule should contain, and there is a certain pleasure to be found in learning what the pressing issues of the day were one hundred years ago—but the idea that the next Handmaid’s Tale could be tucked away until it’s (with any luck) no longer as politically relevant still smarts.

That said, maybe what both these arguments have in common is a too-stringent view of the importance of historical context. After all, in many respects, I find the Victorian novels I read just as relevant today as they were at the moment of their publication (little wonder, given that income inequality is fast approaching nineteenth-century levels). And then, of course, there are all of the other reasons why we read literature. It may be a bit taboo to mention in academic circles—the effect of a generally salutary dose of relativism—but literature does tend to engage with some fairly universal experiences. It would be foolish to discount the aesthetic and emotional ways in which we respond to what we read—the visceral pull of a poem’s rhythms, or the strangely exhilarating blend of grief and pleasure that comes of reading well-crafted tragedy. And Atwood is certainly talented enough as a writer to hold this kind of long-range appeal.

That said, I’m not sure I can entirely quash my feelings of disappointment when I think about the Future Library. Sour grapes, and all that.


Let me know what you think about the Future Library project. Who do you think writers are mainly writing for—their contemporaries or future generations—and what are the most important elements of the reading experience to you?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Audience, Historical Context, and the Future Library Project

  1. I first read about this project on another blog last week and I have been turning the idea over in my mind ever since. At the time I made the link with the last of Andy Warhol’s time capsules, partly because I had just been listening to a programme about its being opened and what was in it. However, those items, when brought together, might say something about a particular person or even a particular time, but the were not in themselves unique, these writings will be and I can’t see that their value to the people in a century’s time will be any greater or any less if we were given the chance to read them now. The more I think about it the more I question the reasoning behind it and I’m fairly sure that if I was a writer I wouldn’t be happy to be involved.

    • I don’t begrudge any writers who want to participate, if only because I can see how it might be an interesting experiment for them, but speaking personally, I kind of doubt I would contribute. I really do like Patterson’s comments about thinking beyond the here and now, but I suppose my own feeling is that the arts themselves do that as well–but only when they’re widely available, of course. Thanks for reading!

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