The Museum of Civilisation & apocalypse fiction

Inspired by Emily St John Mandel's Museum of Civilisation from her novel Station Eleven, Harry from Goldsboro books takes us through what items their customers would save in an apocalypse.

The world we live in is a strange one. One full of evil, illness, yet undeniable beauty. It is a world where our elders complain of the younger generation's blunted youth, dumbed down by iPhones, computers and social media; corrupted by gratuitous violence. But in Emily St. John Mandel's novel Station Eleven, amongst many other things, she poses the question: what if we were to lose it all? 

This, more than the post-apocalyptic backdrop, is what Emily's novel explores. For anybody that hasn't yet read this extraordinary book, it is a love letter to this time and place we find ourselves in. It is why, 20 years in the future, after 99.9% of the world's population has been wiped out by the Georgia Flu (I don't want to alarm you but at an event I went to with Emily and Sarah Lotz it was mentioned that this is the most plausible world ending scenario...) a bunch of survivors gravitate to a haven where there is a Museum of Civilisation which is a collection of objects from the world as we know it. It is a reminder of what was once everywhere and is now nowhere.

When I first read Station Eleven much earlier this year, I knew it was something special. The warning signs were there when I was having to take breaks and deep breaths between chapters to allow what I'd just read to sink in, but in all honesty I thought it was an outstanding work of literary brilliance that just happened to slip into that old favourite genre of mine: post-apocalyptic/dystopian.

But it is genre-bending. On Twitter, I may have even tried to invent my own genre for it ('apocaliterary fiction', since you asked) but you just cannot put this book in a box. If you think post-apocalyptic fiction isn't your bag, I'd urge you to try Station Eleven and your thoughts on that matter may just alter for it is so much more than that. I know The Road changed the game for a lot of readers, and I believe that this book will do, and is doing, the same.

At Goldsboro Books, where I work as a bookseller and editorial assistant at DHH Literary Agency, we knew we wanted to do something special. Picador produced a limited edition of the novel that we stocked (we sold out of all 250 in three days and are racing through the rest of our total of 550 with only a few left!) and we created our very own Museum of Civilisation in our shop window . . .

Goldboro Books shop window display of Station Eleven
The Museum of Civilisation in Goldsboro Books's window

We invited anybody and everybody to tweet in the one thing they would save in an apocalypse would be (with the #Station11 that we’ve all become so accustomed to), and from that list we created our own museum based on everyone’s suggestions. 

As you can imagine, the answers we received ranged from the practical, the not so practical, to the downright hilarious. A lot of books were ‘saved’, ranging from Harry Potter and To Kill a Mockingbird to Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy and more. Food was saved: Marmite, HP sauce, assorted seeds. The ever practical Swiss Army Knife was referred to a few times, and Emily St. John Mandel herself said she would save a globe, ‘because without air travel one’s life would become so localised.’ Other authors, themselves huge fans of the book, got involved too. Samantha Shannon, author of The Bone Season, said that she would save ‘a clock or a watch, because time would have less meaning once society collapsed’ and Lauren Beukes, author of The Shining Girls, would save a washing machine because ‘it changed women’s lives as much as the contraceptive pill.’ My two personal favourites were a copy of Hello magazine ‘so that survivors would know how not to rebuild civilisation’, and a prop moustache on a stick – ‘something pointless to show frivolity was mundane’.

The museum contents have now been collated, and we have picked a winner to donate our Museum of Civilisation to...

Congratulations Jax Blunt (@liveotherwise), who donated a Swiss Army Knife, and who will be receiving her prize when we can finally bring ourselves to change the magical window display that is up!

It still draws people into the shop and from my desk I do enjoy watching passersby stop and admire the display, looking not only at the beautifully produced vibrant book, but the little wonders to be found hidden amongst them.

Harry is on Twitter @harryillers and you can find Goldsboro Books @GoldsboroBooks.

Station Eleven

by Emily St John Mandel

Book cover for Station Eleven

Our favourite dystopian novel of recent years, Station Eleven moves backwards and forwards in time, presenting the recognisable years just before a flu epidemic brought about the collapse of civilisation alongside the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after. It’s a novel that asks questions about art and fame and about the relationships that sustain us through anything – even the end of the world.