Art history that lifts the value of the book

IN OUR era of e-readers and tablets, the prevailing wisdom is that printed books are destined to become moribund. At best, they’ll be quirky relics of centuries gone by that are kept for the sake of nostalgia; at worst, clunky tomes chucked into the recycling bin of history.

Those of us inclined to pontificate about the talismanic qualities of hard copy tend to come across as reactionaries, Luddites or even anti-environmentalists.

But there’s one kind of publication Kindle and company rarely do justice to: the “art book”. Whether it’s a coffee-table exhibition catalogue, an artist’s portfolio or a text-and image-rich art history, the art book needs to be handled, fondled and otherwise physically browsed, perused, paged through, scanned or mulled over. Often the choice of packaging, binding, paper and printing technique is as much a part of the reading experience as the content and layout.

SA has a particularly curious mixture of readers with divergent means and preferences; for now, the printed word is still able to vie with the electronic word. Local publishers have tried to win customers through sexed-up genre fiction (bulky “airport thrillers” and “beach reads”), SMS novels for teens, books with multimedia tie-ins and various other initiatives. Critics have pointed out that sloppy editing practices have crept in as books have been rushed to print.

Art books, on the other hand, are promoted according to a distinct model. They are niche publications, often produced in limited editions and typically quite expensive: their publishers target buyers who value books as objects or as works of art in themselves. While there may be cause to fret about the future of publishing, digital or otherwise, an encounter with a high-quality South African art book (and there are many of them) is likely to leave the reader feeling more than sanguine.

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