Banishing cynicism: on Margaret Atwood’s contribution to the Future Library

Yesterday, Margaret Atwood was named the first contributor to the Future Library project, conceived by Scottish artist, Katie Paterson. The Future Library project will unfold over a century, and will be completed in 2114. Each year, a writer will be invited to contribute a new text, which will be printed on paper made from a forest of 1,000 trees planted for that purpose. Atwood’s contribution (barring some amazing medical advancements that are somehow made available to all classes) is one few living fans will have the opportunity to read.

My first introduction to Atwood’s writing was her dystopian speculative fiction novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which I devoured in two long sittings during the 2012 U.S. Republican presidential primaries. (Don’t ask me how I survived until then without Margaret Atwood in my life.) The novel seemed as relevant to me as I’m sure it had to readers twenty-six years earlier. Sometimes, while reading, I felt hollow and disappointed, because so little about the debate surrounding what to do with the bodies of oppressed people had changed. Disappointed, because it was still a debate. I wonder who will read Atwood’s work in one hundred years. I wonder if they will feel the way I felt while reading The Handmaid’s Tale.

My cynical mind jumps to everything that can go wrong. Will the Deichmanske public library, where the Future Library manuscripts are to be stored, still stand in a century? Will the forest in Nordmarka be leveled to make way for something labeled as progress? When Kate Paterson is gone will the Future Library trust fulfill her vision? And if they do, who will those readers be? Will there be enough people who can read for Atwood’s work to make an impact? Will it make so much of an impact that her work is banned? Will future readers find the act of thumbing through paper pages too foreign to tolerate? Or will they find Atwood’s work too foreign to tolerate? Will future high school students download “No Fear Atwood” into their brains the way high school students now read the atrociously modernized “No Fear Shakespeare” SparkNotes? To lock up her work for one hundred years is an act of optimism so great it trumps my cynical worries.

I have sat through so may panels and read so many articles debating the death of print books. I have heard a million reasons why the popularity of Buzzfeed signals the end of literacy. I grew up in a generation that received countless lectures on the poor grades we’d receive if our papers included any Internet acronyms, which were surely a sign of laziness or stupidity. I am not the only cynic. Cynicism is very in right now. It gets more page views.

In the end, none of my questions matter. Even if the Future Library is never printed, Paterson and Atwood are doing more than any of us idly moaning about the impending death of the written word. They are taking what little control they have over the future and using it. They are trying.

Now, when I think about my first experience reading Atwood’s work, I don’t feel hollow or disappointed. That wasn’t what stuck with me. What stuck with me was a feeling of empowerment, and the knowledge that I, too, could use my words to start a critical discussion, to connect to readers and connect readers to each other.

I forget sometimes that it takes a certain degree of optimism to survive. I forget that idealism and pragmatism can work together, as they do in Paterson’s project. Even if the Future Library is never printed, the idea of this project forces us to dream about the future rather than merely predict it. When we dream about the future, we can imagine our role in shaping it.