The Longest Story Ever Told?

How long does it take you to read a story?

Conceptual artist Jonathon Keats has written a story that will take one thousand years to read. A minimum of twelve human generations will need to cooperate in the reading; the full story won't be known to any but the last few.

The story will be printed on the cover of Opium Magazine using newly-developed inking technology. The nine words that comprise the story will take about a hundred years each to appear as the cover fades.


(The longest story ever told?)

I had the opportunity to send some questions on to Jonathon Keats; here are his replies.

Technovelgy: What inspired you to create this story?

Jonathon Keats: Traditionally storytelling was the means by which humans communicated over generations. Each generation told the same basic myths, altered to suit immediate circumstances, allowing the culture to evolve without becoming unhinged. We no longer have such legends. Instead of myths, we have blogs, read once and hourly refreshed. If we're no longer interested in recapitulating our past, perhaps one way to foster generational continuity is by vastly slowing down the time it takes for a story to unfold in the first place. Told over a millennium, and changing with the centuries, a story becomes a sort of collective intellectual property.

T: Is it really possible to write a story that will interest that many generations of humanity?

Keats: I don’t know whether it's possible to write such a story - and I certainly wouldn’t claim myself to have the ability - but I believe that the *concept* of a story engaging multiple generations might be persistently engaging in its own right.

T: Does it have a surprise ending?

Keats: The nine words that comprise the story won't be revealed in order, so different stories within the story will progressively come into view only to vanish as new words appear. If there's any sense of surprise, it will be in terms of how the story changes in time. Of course given that the rate of change is slower than the human lifecycle, it's difficult to say exactly *who* will be surprised. Does surprise need to reside in a single mind, or can it be communally sensed over multiple generations? Slowing down the storytelling process may be a way of exploring the mechanism of suspense, and perhaps even the collective unconscious.

T: The English language has changed a lot since, say, Chaucer's time. Will the people of a thousand years hence understand the whole story?

Keats: Misunderstanding is not necessarily a bad thing. Chaucer may be poetically richer for a contemporary reader than for people in his own day because incomprehension breeds ambiguity, which means more dynamic interplay between text and reader. Moreover, in our confusion we make assumptions based on our own lives that keep Chaucer's stories young. They're always changing in meaning. As language evolves and societies change, this story will likewise be in flux, and may even improve in time. The twists and turns are not only intrinsic to it, but also contingent on us.

T: Some biologists believe that it is possible that people alive now might well live for a millennium. Does that make you wish you could change your story a bit?

Keats: Perhaps some people will live for a millennium or more, but I certainly have no plans to survive for that long. So if anyone has complaints at the end of 1,000 years, luckily I won’t be around to hear them.

You might enjoy some of Keating's other projects; take a look at his universe kits (go ahead, make one!) and the Atheon Temple To Science .

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 5/20/2009)

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