Books

Future Library: why no one can read Margaret Atwood’s secret book for 100 years

The Future Library is known as the world’s most secretive library, as it’s home to unpublished books that won’t be read for the next 100 years. The books have been written by world-renowned authors including Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and, as of this year, Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård. Here, Stylist meets project founder Katie Paterson to find out more.

Deep in the Norwegian forest stand 1,000 trees, planted with a very special purpose. Over 100 years, these trees will be turned into manuscripts written by world-renowned authors, printed each year and displayed in a uniquely designed room in Oslo’s public library.

The only catch? No one can read the manuscripts until 2114.

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This is the premise behind Future Library, a 100-year long project founded in 2014 by Scottish artist Katie Paterson. The library certainly made a triumphant first impression on the world – Margaret Atwood was the first author to submit a manuscript, delivering Scribbler Moon to the woods in Oslo in a quiet ceremony in May 2015. No one in the world except Atwood knows the contents of Scribbler Moon, and the manuscript will remain unread for the next 95 years.

margaret atwood katie paterson future library
Future Library: Margaret Atwood prepares to hand her unread book, Scribbler Moon, over to the Future Library

From next year, Scribbler Moon will be displayed in the newly created ‘Silent Room’ in Oslo’s public library, which has been built using wood from the trees originally cut down to make way for the project. The manuscript will join works by authors including David Mitchell, Sjón, Elif Shafak, Han Kang and, as of 2020, Karl Ove Knausgård.

Which authors have written for the Future Library?

The authors that have written books for the Future Library so far include:

  • 2014: Scribbler Moon by Margaret Atwood
  • 2015: From Me Flows What You Call Time by David Mitchell
  • 2016: As My Brow Brushes On The Tunics Of Angels or The Drop Tower, the Roller Coaster, the Whirling Cups and other Instruments of Worship from the Post-Industrial Age by Sjón
  • 2017: The Last Taboo by Elif Shafak
  • 2018: Dear Son, My Beloved by Han Kang
  • 2019: TBC by Karl Ove Knausgård

The project has been dubbed ‘the world’s most secretive library’, which is fitting when you consider that a new manuscript – its contents completely unknown – will be added to the library and put on display every year. A new author is selected every year, and given the license to write whatever they want – a work of fiction, a poem, a biography. They submit one digital copy and one printed copy of their work, and next year, when the Silent Room opens, all the authors are invited to return to Oslo to put their manuscript in their own designated drawer, which will then light up to display the work for the visiting public in years to come.

katie paterson future library oslo forest norway
Future Library: The forest in Oslo, Norway, where the trees for the Future Library have been planted.

It’s slightly mind boggling to consider that, in our lifetimes, we will never know what any of the works contain. In fact, it’s unlikely that anyone alive today will ever know, except the authors themselves.

Of course, the first and most natural question that springs to mind when considering the project is… why? Why is there a secret library in Norway, quietly gathering works from authors each year that no one is allowed to read?

“I wanted to put something in place that travels through stretches of time,” Paterson explains to Stylist. “The project is moving and changing to become an organically growing artwork year after year, with the authors adding their own chapters to this larger anthology. They’re not read by us, but instead we’re leaving something for people who don’t yet exist, and who will be able to reflect on who those citizens were.”

silent room future library margaret atwood
Future Library: These designs show how the Silent Room will look once completed in 2020.

It’s a fascinating idea, and one that has already captured the imagination of people across the world. The project is only five years old, and we literally don’t – and won’t – know how it will end.

Below, Stylist talks to Paterson about the library, from its humble beginnings right through to its imagined end.

Where did the idea for the Future Library come from?

The idea came years ago. I was drawing tree rings in a notebook and I saw a vision of tree rings becoming chapters, then becoming paper and finally becoming a book. I never could have imagined the idea would come off the page and become a real thing over the 100-year duration that it has.

Why did you choose 100 years as the duration for the project?

I think because 100 years is quite pertinent to humans, as it’s just outside of our lifetimes. We’re making something for people that aren’t born yet. 

Have you read any of the manuscripts?

No! Of course, I’ve been tempted because I’ve been in the closest proximity to them and their authors. But for me it would completely break the spell about what’s in those texts, and the idea that they’re only opened by people that are in the distant future, so even if I wanted to I wouldn’t read them. I have a lot of self-restraint…

How do you choose which authors to feature in the project?

Myself and the Future Library Trust select the authors, made up of publishers and literary specialists. In the next few weeks we’ll meet to select the next author – we have a long list! We work through discussion and we only choose year on year. We don’t have a list of people lined up, it’s completely dependent on the year at hand.

han kang future library
Future Library: Han Kang in the Oslo forest, preparing her manuscript for the Future Library.

How did you get Margaret Atwood to be the first author to write for the project? Stylist readers are huge fans of hers.

Me too, she’s my absolute hero. At that point, we had planted the forest, and we had everything in place other than the first author. I wanted them to be a woman, and I couldn’t have dreamt of anyone better than Margaret Atwood. When she said yes I was absolutely overjoyed and I continue to be so, because her work reaches through time and generations and is able to talk to a variety of different ages and nationalities, especially right now in this moment. I love that her words will be the first read by the future readers.

When you approached her, did she say yes straight away?

We got a really fast yes, it was amazing. She wrote a letter giving us advice about how to grow the forest because she grew up in one – her father was an entomologist who worked with insects. So not only did we get a reply saying she would take part, but also some advice on how to help grow the forest! She compared the request [to write a manuscript] as being asked to donate a kidney. Thank goodness she did because it’s been immense.

The project has been described as ‘the world’s most secretive library’. Is that how you would describe it?

It’s funny – the contents are secretive, but the project is really open and inclusive of people because of the ritual of the author bringing a manuscript to the forest each year. It’s open to everyone and it’s something that I want everyone to take part in and take on over the years after I’m gone, which is obviously inevitable. So yes, it’s secretive in the sense of the words, but inclusive through people and authors. We’re inviting people of different nationalities to take part, and I’m particularly interested in what might happen to languages over the next 100 years – some languages might even disappear. I’m trying to connect to the future and to the people who aren’t born yet. 

elif shafak future library book
Future Library: Elif Shafak carries her unread manuscript and a published book through the forest in Oslo.

It’s gutting to think that we won’t be here for the end of the project…

It is an odd concept to think that we won’t exist when [the end of the project] does, but other readers will and that’s great. And towards the year 2097 the authors [who contribute] will [be around for the end of the project] as well, so it will be quite a different project for them.

Do you feel sad that you won’t be there at the end?

Kind of. I get sad when I think that almost everyone I know now won’t be there, because they’ll be gone. Perhaps my youngest son who is only two might see it through – he’s been to the forest, and it’s amazing to think of his life progressing alongside the project. It’s special because it’s really become part of our lives – it’s not just a piece of artwork that I deliver, and then that’s it, it’s very much tied with my life and my family’s.

future library unread books oslo norway
Future Library: A sign in the forest marks the beginning of the Future Library.

Main image: Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch

Other images: Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch / Atelier Oslo, Lund Hagem, Katie Paterson, 2017 / Rio Gandara / Helsingin Sanomat

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