Wed. Dec 7th, 2022

Publishing Recitatif in book form elevates it from anthology entry to its own masterpiece, like a small canvas by a well-known painter that’s framed and displayed to stand out against monumental works. Recognizing Toni Morrison’s only short story as its own art form reframes our reading experience. Most of us have read the story as a PDF or printout of its initial 1983 publishing in Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women, a collection of fiction, poetry, essays, and short plays exploring the lives of Black women in the United States edited by Amiri Baraka and Amina Baraka.

Now elite ephemera, you can buy Confirmation on Amazon for $761.13 in “acceptable” condition. You can’t find a copy on AbeBooks, African American Literature Book Club (aalbc.com), or other websites dedicated to used, rare and out-of-print books, or books and film by and about African-Americans and people of African descent, respectively. The anthology gains value like a limited edition print of an artwork or photograph that endures through decades or centuries of social and aesthetic change. Moreover, its curation by two towering figures in poetry, literature, performance, activism, and the Black Arts Movement, imbues it with context that speaks to the broader importance of Morrison’s work during a time when Affirmative Action began to crumble. Despite sluggish courts and lagging legislation, 1983 was a watershed year for Black Americans. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Harold Washington was elected the first Black mayor of Chicago, Guion Bluford became the first African-American sent into space by NASA, and Vanessa Williams was the first Black woman crowned Miss America.

Handling a hardcover stand-alone edition of Recitatif A Story as a book, introduced by Zadie Smith and published in February by Knopf, transforms our reading. At 96 pages all in, it is slighter than Morrison’s acclaimed novels – less than a third of Beloved and Song of Solomon, and less than a half of The Bluest Eye and Jazz. Smith’s introduction comprises half of the reissue. Don’t be mistaken, there is might to this petite tome. Morrison already masters economy of words in novel form, for which she is revered, and her short story is tight, visceral writing that doesn’t allow for the extraneous word.

Giving it its own pressing brings it to market as a heavyweight to rival the cannon, much like taking an under-valued small-scale painting by a celebrated artist to Christie’s, Sotheby’s, or Phillips. Reading Recitatif online as a PDF or on flimsy copy paper alienates us from the experience. We’re deprived of cracking open a hardcover, running our fingers across the smooth dust jacket, turning the bound pages, and engaging with the book itself as an object. Books are objects of art, like visual artworks, their content hopefully more relevant and impactful than their presentation. Still, the object itself is, by design, meant to be handled with care, to be respected, to be collected, to be shared, to be borrowed, to be on view and, in rare cases, to become part of human history. The Knopf reissue is both an intimate experience and a collective one, knowing everyone who handles a copy is sharing in the physical act, either through ownership or lending. The new version affords more literary authority and more commercial appeal.

Like every great artwork, Recitatif A Story can be read on its own, worthy of solo exhibition, or within the context of Morrison’s oeuvre as a novelist, a writer, a storyteller, an artist, a troublemaker. The story itself deserves an introduction and its own display, like any masterpiece on public view.

Recitatif was published by Thornwillow in March 2021 in an edition of 500 “classic edition” copies bound in letterpress printed paper wrappers, 150 “patrons’ edition” copies bound in handmade paste papers and individually numbered and signed by the publisher available for $165, and 24 half-leather copies bound in Moroccan leather with handmade paste paper boards, each individually numbered and signed by the publisher, for $685.

Knopf presents us with a monochromatic dust jacket design, featuring alternate shades of blue in the text, underscoring racial ambiguity. Morrison described Recitatif as an experiment in removing all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is important, and predicted that the story would continue to perplex and engage readers for many years.

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