Two years ago, you could have read Adam Johnson’s story “Nirvana” in Esquire magazine for the price of a fancy latte (or for free online). If you’re hip enough, you’ve already read several of his stories in the little Portland, Ore.-based journal Tin House (annual subscription: $34.95).
In fact, following the usual custom of short-story collections, all the pieces in this Pulitzer Prize-winner’s new book, “Fortune Smiles” (reviewed Aug. 12), have been previously published here and there. Except one. That new story is “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” and to read it, you’ll have to buy the whole collection from Random House ($27) — or wait till December and hope you can get one of 37 special copies of the story for $9,000.
You can’t put a price on great literature, of course, but $9,000 for a new short story — even a fine one like “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” — sounds high unless you can say, “J.P. Morgan was a friend of mine.”
But this will be no ordinary publication. It’s the latest project from 21st Editions, a Cape Cod, Mass.-based maker of literary works of art. Founded in 1998, 21st Editions takes its inspiration from William Morris’s Arts and Crafts Movement and Alfred Stieglitz’s early 20th-century journal Camera Work. Its books — now about 50 different titles — require more than a year to design, print and construct. They sport goatskin covers, handmade paper, hand-stitched bindings, letterpress typography and, most striking of all, gorgeous photos. Previous works have included the writings of Edward Albee, Annie Dillard, Walt Whitman and Shakespeare to complement the photographs of such artists as Imogen Cunningham, Duane Michals and Sally Mann.
“We marry contemporary photography with the word,” says publisher Steven Albahari. “The binding, the paper, the text, the artwork all has equal weight. Adam’s book is one of the most beautiful we’ve done in years.”
Twenty years ago, Johnson was a student of John Wood, the co-founder and now co-publisher of 21st Editions, and they’ve kept in touch. “21st Editions is simply the most luxurious literary/photography journal in the world,” Johnson says. “When John wrote to me and asked for a story, I knew right away I’d give him my best work.”
The text of “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” will be published as the book “The Janus Turn,” featuring 12 bound and two loose black-and-white photographs by George Tice.
This is not an obvious pairing. Tice’s platinum prints show trees and rural homes, mostly in Indiana and his native New Jersey. Johnson’s story is about a retired East German official living near the notorious Hohenschönhausen prison. The photos look peaceful and bucolic; the story is bitter and finally shocking.
But Wood anticipates that question in his brief introduction. While acknowledging that Johnson and Tice may seem “radically dissimilar,” he notes that “they share a similar emotionally ominous vision.”
Both artists, he says, demonstrate a “deep understanding of the complexity of the human condition, that Janus turn of the head which encompasses both the best and the worst of us — our partaking of the good and beautiful while also recognizing and accepting the evil and the ugly as part of the human condition.”
That tension between “the good and beautiful” and “the evil and the ugly” extends to the jarring juxtaposition of this bound work of art and the content of Johnson’s story, which involves a bitter man in deep denial about the horrors in which he participated.
What a different reading experience this will be than scrolling through the text on your e-reader. You would never accidentally leave this on the subway.
Libraries and museums around the world buy these books. One collector of 21st Editions has bought a copy of all of them — and never opened one. But Albahari, the publisher, regards his books as perfectly durable works of arts. “We never use gloves,” he says. “We consider them stronger than us.”
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.