Fade From Black: A Magazine's Long Story

Scott Simon talks to conceptual artist Jonathon Keats, who recently published what he calls the longest story ever told on the cover of Opium Magazine. It's a nine-word tale covered in ink that reveals one word per century.

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Forget about "War and Peace," "Les Miserables," and "Atlas Shrugged." The most time-consuming story ever told appears on the cover of the recent issue of Opium Magazine. It's just nine words long, but it'll take a millennium to read. Each word has been covered with different amounts of black ink. That's supposed to gradually disappear over the next thousand years or so, revealing one word every century.

Jonathon Keats is the author and designer. He joins us on the phone from Italy.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JONATHAN KEATS (Author/Designer): Thank you for having me on.

SIMON: Is this a stunt?

Mr. KEATS: The question of whether it's a stunt or a gimmick or something of the sort comes fresh to everyone's mind when they encounter a work like this, when really I think that what I'm after is quite the opposite. I'm after the sort of curiosity that we have as children, the sort of way of going about life saying, what if, what if a story took a thousand years to tell and what if it were a short story at that? What would it be like and what might it tell us about deep times?

SIMON: I'm looking at the cover right now. I mean it looks like it's completely black, of course. And I guess I have to wait - what is it, about a hundred years before I can see the first word, right?

Mr. KEATS: I guess. It's a modest period of time compared to the thousand that you'll have to wait to get to the last one.

SIMON: Did anyone at the printing press say, You know, Mr. Keats, we're proud of printing stuff that people can read...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ...not that gets covered over…

Mr. KEATS: Well, they thought that I was insane, which is not an unusual response. I had a long conversation with the printers, trying to talk about the printing process and how it might be turned on its head, so to speak. Fading is, of course, something that is generally undesirable. You don't want the ink to fade but it will. So my thought was to make that liability into an asset and to use the very process of fading as a way of bringing words out into view rather than having that being a mechanism by which a story vanishes from existence.

SIMON: Are you the only one who's read this story?

Mr. KEATS: No, the editor-in-chief has also done so and we are, I believe, the only two people in the world who know the contents. Of course, neither one of us will survive for the full thousand years, so after about a hundred years no one will know what the story says. And that, I think, was partly also what interested me in composing this, was a story that would outlast the teller, a story that would outlast anybody who might engage it.

And that would be in a sense something inherited by the next generation and the one following, and could only be apprehended and potentially appreciated in some sort of collective way over multiple generations.

SIMON: Jonathan Keats, who's written the cover story of the most recent Opium Magazine, but it'll take a thousand years to get to the last word.

Thanks very much.

Mr. KEATS: Thank you very much.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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