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The Future Library in Nordmarka

Famous authors like Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Sjón, and Karl Ove Knausgård are all contributing to a forest of books on the outskirts of Oslo.

Deep inside the Nordmarka wilderness area in Oslo stands a forest within the forest: The Future Library.

The art project thought up by Scottish artist Katie Paterson and commissioned by Bjørvika Utvikling, consists of planting a forest to grow the materials for a unique library for people living one hundred years from now.

Paterson, who says the seed of the idea came to her several years ago, says she found Oslo to be the perfect location for her project.

“With the city surrounded by trees, I imagined the forest may be part of people’s psyches in a more pronounced way. Perhaps a 100-year artwork might be received and thought about differently.”

In 2014, along with local foresters and a small team, she planted 1,000 Norwegian spruce trees in Nordmarka. They picked out the seeds from the surrounding forest and sealed them in white wax to ward off any hungry weevils.

The fate of the trees has also been sealed, a full century in advance. In the year 2114, they are to serve as paper pulp for the printing of an anthology by one hundred authors, one per year. Each will contribute one unpublished text, its length and contents a secret even to Paterson.

Paterson says the idea came when she made a connection between tree rings and chapters and imagined how the writer’s thoughts would imprint in the trees.

“Almost as if the trees absorb the writer’s words like air or water, and the tree rings become chapters spaced out over the years to come.”

So far, an impressive slate of writers has joined the project. The first author to contribute was Margaret Atwood, who counts among the science fiction canon’s giants for dystopian novels such as “The handmaid’s tale” and the “MaddAddam trilogy”.

“Margaret Atwood compared our invite to being asked to donate a kidney to one of her family members: ‘You either say yes or no immediately, and I said yes’”, Paterson says.

In an essay written for the occasion, Atwood also touched on the optimism inherent in Paterson’s project.

“Will any human beings be waiting there to receive it? Will there be a ‘Norway’? Will there be a ‘forest’? Will there be a ‘library’? It’s hopeful to believe that all of these elements – despite climate change, rising sea levels, forest insect infestations, global pandemics, and all of the other threats, real or not, that trouble our minds today – will still exist.”

Paterson agrees that her project is hopeful at its core, in believing that the forest, the book, and the reader will all be there a century from now.

“Future Library is not a directly environmental statement but involves ecology, the interconnectedness of things – those living now and still to come. It questions the present tendency to think in short bursts of time, making decisions only for us living now.”

Since Atwood, several more authors have joined, including “The Bone Clocks” author David Mitchell (2015), Sjón (2016), Elif Shafak (2017) and Man Booker International Prize winner Han Kang (2018). At June 12th, three new authors will hand over their works to the collection at the same time (postponed due to the pandemic). These authors are Norway’s own Karl Ove Knausgård (2019), Ocean Vuong (2020) and Tsitsi Dangarembga (2021).

A trust decides on which authors to invite year by year, to keep the project from becoming static, so that authors will reflect their contemporary moments all the way until the grand unveiling.

The manuscripts are held in a specially designed room called The Silent Room in Oslo’s main public library building in Bjørvika, next to the Oslo Opera House. 

“The room is situated on the top floor of the library. The positioning of the Future Library room looks in the direction of the forest, which we can glimpse in the horizon”, Paterson says.

“It is a small, intimate room, encouraging only one or two people at a time, containing the manuscripts with the author’s name, the title of their text, and the year visible.”

When the room opened, the read-through was still 95 years off, as the texts themselves are locked away. Which means that Paterson, along with anyone reading this article, won’t be around to read them.

I will certainly be dead when the Future Library sees its final completion. When I had the idea, I knew instantly it would outlive me (and most of us alive today). It is important that I do not see it fully realised – it is a work conceived for an unknown, future generation. However, it will unfold over this generation and the next, and remarkably, I will spend my whole life crafting this artwork”, she says.

And though she is curious about the texts, she refuses to sneak a peek. The closest she’s come? Being handed the boxes that contain the manuscripts.

“David Mitchell’s piece is around 90 pages, and Margaret Atwood’s box was also very heavy.”

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