BROOKE GLADSTONE From an imagined future online to a palpable one on Earth, the Future Library is inviting 100 writers, one every year to contribute to a collection that will be published in 2014. They're also growing a thousand trees for 100 years to print 3000 copies of 100 manuscripts. The Future Library also includes instructions on how to make paper. And there's a printing press again with instructions in case we forgot how to use it. So far, seven authors have contributed. The latest being Ocean Vuong. The New York Times described the project as the literary equivalent of a seed bank. Margaret Atwood was the first contributor, and when I spoke to her back in 2015, I asked if she saw the enterprise that way. That this might persist as a kind of safe haven for literature in case all else fails.
MARGARET ATWOOD Any time you write something, you're always anticipating a future reader. Even if it's your diary, you're anticipating yourself at a future point in time. Just as when you write down a musical score, you're anticipating a future player who will come along and unlock the score and turn it back into music again. A seed bank is the same idea. You put the seeds in there with the idea that somebody will in the future plant them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm just wondering if there was a difference writing for readers who aren't born yet,
MARGARET ATWOOD Are we talking about the idea of me maybe dying?
MARGARET ATWOOD Is that the subject here? Any book when you write it, there's always a time gap between when you write it and when somebody else reads it. It's just that the time gap is a little bit longer. Well, to be frank, quite a lot longer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But didn't you say that readers might need a paleoanthropologists to enjoy the book?
MARGARET ATWOOD Yeah, we know how language changes over time and we know that words are appearing all the time. Words are changing their meanings all of the time. We know that we can still understand Shakespeare. Though, the further along in time we go, the more footnotes we need.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The future libraries described as a hopeful project because it's based on the belief that humans will exist 100 years from now. Is that a high bar?
MARGARET ATWOOD I don't think it's a terribly high bar, but there are a lot of other things involved, too. So, humans will exist, but will they exist, in Oslo, for instance. Trees will grow, but will they grow there? Will people be able to read? Will they wish to read? These are all things that we don't know yet, and they're going to ask for contributions from all around the globe from any language. Some of those languages may be quite small. Maybe the languages themselves will be extinct in a hundred years. And if so, should they be putting in a dictionary?
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is a question. If you got up and left right now, I wouldn't be surprised. But I'm going to ask you anyway, what do you think the world's going to be like in 100 years?
MARGARET ATWOOD Well, now the good news from the physicists is that time really does move in one direction. Things aren't all simultaneous the way they were in Slaughterhouse-Five. So choices you make now actually can influence the future. The bad news is that Donald Rumsfeld was right about one thing. It's the unknown unknowns that get you. So we don't know about the unknown unknowns. We know about some of the knowns. We know that our actions can change some of those knowns. I just read in the paper today that the cod fishery has rebounded.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That is actually very encouraging.
MARGARET ATWOOD Don't you think? Something has rebounded. We hear about all these things bounding, but we don't hear about them rebounding. So the other thing that's helpful is that there's a great endeavor underway to plan a lot of milkweed so that the monarch butterflies will rebound. And a man has discovered that one of the biggest soakers up of oil spills is actually milkweed fluff that he's making into oil spill succor. And he's got a bunch of farmers growing milkweed for this project. So people are very ingenious and they come up with all kinds of solutions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, I have to admit, I'm a little taken aback by how positive you sound. Your imagined worlds are so dystopian,
MARGARET ATWOOD it's not all bad. Duct tape has survived the meltdown of the human race. It's very positive. I'm happy that there's duct tape. The thing about my books is their books, and just think of it this way, we've known her for decades to blow ourselves up with atomic bombs and we haven't done it yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A character in The Blind Assassin said, "why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we're still alive, we wish to assert our existence like dogs peeing on fire hydrants. We monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. It's the same impulse. What do we hope to get from it?" And you said, or the character said, "We can't stand the idea of our own voices falling silent. Finally, like a radio running down."
MARGARET ATWOOD Is what she says true?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is it?
MARGARET ATWOOD Is it? I'm asking you, you're the writer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It sounds right. No one wants to die, and I guess that's the impulse for writing. But when you're staring a hundred years from now in the face, did it make a difference that you wouldn't be here a hundred years from now other than the fact that you wouldn't have to confront the critics?
MARGARET ATWOOD Young people worry a lot more than older people. And the reason they worry a lot more than older people is that they don't know the plot of their own lives yet. They don't know how it's going to turn out for them. Will they meet their true love? Will they be successful? At my age, I kind of know how the story goes. So should I get hit by a truck tomorrow? The plot will pretty much have unfolded.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And the rest of the human race?
MARGARET ATWOOD Well, of course I worry about them, but they have to worry about themselves, because it's not going to be my problem very shortly. It will, however, be theirs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Margaret Atwood, thank you very much
MARGARET ATWOOD And thank you very much. How old are you anyway?
BROOKE GLADSTONE 60.
MARGARET ATWOOD Oh, you're a mere child.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, right!
MARGARET ATWOOD No wonder you're so worried.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Actually, less and less every day. I notice that.
MARGARET ATWOOD This is what I mean. Yeah, I could have been your babysitter and popped two into the microwave. No, I'll take that back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They didn't have microwaves when I was that young.
MARGARET ATWOOD No they didn't, see I thought you might spot that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Margaret Atwood is the author of many, many books, her most recent novel is The Testament's, a sequel to the iconic 1985 The Handmaid's Tale.
BROOKE GLADSTONE On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen, our engineer this week was Adriene Lily. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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