On the top floor of Deichman Bjorvika Library in Oslo, there is a wood-pannelled room which is part of an installation, the ‘Future Library’, by the Scottish artist Katie Patterson. The project was inaugurated in 2014, with the premise that every year for a century a manuscript would be commissioned, and kept under lock and key till 2114, when the texts would be printed. Saplings have been planted too in a clearing not too far from the library, and the idea is that the texts will be printed on paper made from trees which would have grown by then. Manuscripts from Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Elif Shafak, Han Kang, Karl Ove Knausgaard and others are already in.
It is an “art project that combines the idea of long-term cultural storage with environmental sustainability,” writes Martin Puchner in his remarkable new book, Culture, A New World History, but which also raises a host of questions. How are the writers being chosen? Do they predominantly hail from the Global North? Will English as a language still be relevant in 2114?
‘Will there be a library?
Atwood submitted her manuscript, ‘Scribbler Moon’, asking more questions: Will there be ‘Norway’? Will there be a ‘library’?; Will there be a ‘forest’? No sooner than the project was launched, it received a jolt: the pandemic. It had to be put on hold when “a tiny virus, itself the product of environmental change” brought travel and much else to a standstill. “The future is unpredictable, reminding us that culture is, at best a broken chain that we keep repairing in every generation,” says Puchner. In his book, he observes how down the ages, groups of humans, with diverse and distinct cultures, have been held together by “shared practices.” With new evidence now available, thanks to machine learning, computer models and data analysis, historians are guiding readers to a better understanding of the past.
It was David Reich who dramatically revised assumptions of the past with a book about ancient DNA revolution. In Who We Are And How We Got Here (2018), he wrote an account of the genome revolution, highlighting some of the themes that have been emerging, “specially the finding that mixture between highly differentiated populations is a recurrent process in the human past.”
Another flank is opened up in Peter Frankopan’s new book, The Earth Transformed: An Untold Story, in which the scope of his study is the way humans have interacted with the natural world. He says he turned to history because it can teach valuable lessons that help formulate questions and sometimes even answers relating to some of the big issues that the world is grappling with. Frankopan puts the spotlight on climate change, which is already sparking water shortages, famines, extreme weather events, large-scale migrations, military conflict and mass extinction. Many new sources of climate data are becoming available, he writes, which “allow us better to understand the natural world deep into the past.” As an example, he offers the case of a team of researchers in south-east Kazakhstan who are looking into an 80-metre deep sedimentary layer that provides a record of soil moisture, as well as offering insights into the role that Central Asia plays in global climate evolution in general and into the land-atmosphere-ocean water cycle in the northern hemisphere in particular.
Links with the past
It is imperative, says Puchner, to connect humans living today with distant ancestors, as also with one another: “We can’t engineer our way out of today’s most intractable conflicts, which are based on age-old troubles involving clashing identities, colliding interests, and opposing beliefs.” In his book, Puchner goes through “fragments from the past to generate new and surprising ways of meaning-making.” He writes about Firoz Shah Tughlaq who came upon an ancient pillar, erected and inscribed by King Ashoka at Topra, and transported it to Delhi; of Arab archaeologist Mohammed es-Senussi who dug up an Egyptian queen, Nefertiti, “who was meant to be erased from history”; of a caliph who collected knowledge no matter who had produced it; of Plato who openly admired Egypt and invented an alternative history of Greece; an Ethiopian queen who used the Ten Commandments to tell a new story of origin. For him, the main lesson from cultural history is that we need engagement with the past, and with one another, “for cultures to reach their full potential, despite the errors, incomprehension, and destruction that often accompany such engagement.”
In Simon Sebag Montefiore’s magnum opus, The World A History, the focus is on family ties that connect the world across eras and all continents. He tells the history of the world through individuals and families, tracing convergences and divergences but tethering it to human agency. Steering clear of being only Euro-centric, he approached dynasties such as the Ming or Tang of China, the Mughals and the Nehru-Gandhi family in India, the Dahomey kings in Africa, the Hapsburgs and Windsors in Europe and the Kennedys in America. In an interview with The Hindu, he said, “Alongside huge countries like India, I wanted to cover others like Cambodia, Haiti, Morocco. Africa was a challenge, because there used to be an attitude that African history didn’t start until Europeans arrived. It was the same in the Americas. But I took it as a challenge that I had to cover the history of these places before Europeans turned up.”
As Frankopan puts it, one of the difficulties of writing history is that there are inevitably major gaps in coverage.
But books like these can provide a broader perspective and introduce fresh themes, ask more questions that can help push the boundaries of research in the future.