Bookish Diversions: The Future Library
100-Year Publishing Project, 55-Year Book Club, C.S. Lewis, Book Bans, More
¶ You’re free to visit the Future Library in Oslo, Norway, but you can’t read any books. Not yet, at least. Project creators have solicited books from authors that will not publish for a century. While the books are waiting to release, a specially planted forest is growing. In a hundred years, the trees will be harvested, turned to paper, and printed with all those hibernating books by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong, and many others. “The Future Library is an expression of hope,” says Richard Fisher, profiling the project, “a statement of confidence in the possibilities that could lie ahead for our children over long-term time.”
¶ What if you had to restart civilization from scratch? The Long Now Foundation has assembled a library of core books necessary for the task. It’s called the Manual for Civilization.
¶ What does it take to keep a book club going for the long haul? A friend has one that’s been meeting for more than a dozen years now. I would venture most never last anywhere near that long. But here’s one that’s been running more than half a century. “Over 55 years, 34 women have been members of the Booke Club, very few for under five years, and most for decades.” Three factors that kept it going: it was serious, structured, and members all respected each other.
¶ Epilogues and eulogies. My review this coming Saturday treats a biography of Anthony Bourdain, the celebrated chef, writer, and television personality who tragically hanged himself in 2018. That prompts a question: What happens when an author dies? Here’s a look at seven books that deal with the literary legacies of authors, including a comic novel.
¶ No Reservations: Narnia? Anthony Bourdain was famous for traveling the world in search of memorable food, company, and experiences. But what if he traveled outside this world? One fan of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia imagined Bourdain trying his shtick in that fantastical land of magic and talking beasts. You can read it here. Curious about his reaction, New Yorker writer Helen Rosner forwarded the story to Bourdain himself. “This is astonishingly well written with an attention to detail that’s frankly a bit frightening,” he responded. “I’m both flattered and disturbed. I think I need a drink.”
¶ Speaking of longevity and C. S. Lewis, he never imagined the lasting influence he would have. “After I’ve been dead five years,” he told his friend Owen Barfield, “no one will read anything I’ve written.” To the contrary, Lewis is now read more than ever. Still, it’s a reasonable thought for an author. Books are not immortal. They rarely live beyond the generation of their author and earliest readers—and usually they die much sooner than that. The blood and breath of books are the thoughts and words of readers, the people who animate the pages once an author has let them go. Almost inevitably readers eventually stop thinking and talking about them; when that happens, they fall out of mind and die. Only a handful of special books bridge the generations and find readers to breathe life between their leaves one decade after another—books like, despite his humble self-assessment, Lewis’s own.
¶ Benching the weights of glory. C. S. Lewis might not strike us as terribly athletic, but he was. “Lewis was addicted to vigorous exercise,” says biographer Harry Lee Poe. “He loved to take ten, fifteen, and twenty mile rapid tromps across countryside, but especially over rugged hills and mountains. He loved to ride a bicycle all over Oxfordshire. He loved to swim in cold streams and ponds. He loved to row a boat.”
¶ Sharing isn’t caring, say some. As we think about the long-term availability of books and ideas, differing opinions about intellectual property quickly rise to the fore. Several publishers have, for instance, sued the Internet Archive, a partner of the Long Now Foundation, for sharing ebooks.
¶ The trouble with school book bans. “Book bans inhibit a core function of public education,” says David French. “They teach students that they should be protected from offensive ideas rather than how to engage and grapple with concepts they may not like.” He points to a little-known legal case that offers a better perspective on the roles of schools, parents, and students when it comes to troubling content.
¶ Diverse ideas. I’ve linked a few stories in Bookish Diversions about racial diversity in publishing. As the father of three black children, efforts to expand representation matter to me. But viewpoint diversity matters as well, and publishers have always played a key role in making room for a wide array of ideas and expressions. That’s in jeopardy today: “There was always a general understanding that our job as publishers was to enable debates, not to take sides,” says one publisher; “it now feels to me that on a number of complex and difficult issues, very large parts of publishing have decided to only publish one side of the argument.” And here’s more on the same.
¶ If everyone’s happy, something’s wrong.
The strength of books is not simply in whom they please, but also whom they enrage, those who agree and those who disagree.
—Rafia Zakaria, “In Praise of Negative Reviews.”
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