Last night I read a book I've been wanting to get my hands on for a number of years. It's B. S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, the famous "book in a box". First published in 1969, it went out of print (like most of Johnson's other works), was then resurrected briefly by Picador in 1999 (to go OP again), and has now got a third lease of life thanks to New Directions in America.
The Unfortunates is a simple story told beautifully. A man (Johnson himself) goes to Nottingham in his role as a sports journalist to cover a soccer match. With time to kill before the match, he roams the city, remembering a friend who died from cancer, and the women with whom he was involved during the time he knew that friend.
To capture the non-linear nature of the narrator's thought processes, Johnson wrote the book as 27 chapters, with only the first and last to be read as normal. The other 25 chapters should be shuffled and read in random order. To assist this, each of the chapters is seperate, and contained in a box, rather than the whole book being bound normally.
New Directions, following the Picador printing, have done a beautiful job. The minimalist, illustration-free cover doesn't distract you from the joys within the book-shaped box. The interior of the box itself contains details of the book's history, the match report from the novel, and several quotes from Johnson's heroes Samuel Johnson and Laurence Sterne.
Here's the "book" as it first appears (click for much bigger versions of all of these images):
What you see when you open it:
The unbound pages and the box interior:
A close-up of the box interior:
The various unbound chapters on the loose:
A page with some small images from the original Secker & Warburg edition of 1969 is here.