Talk: Beautiful Art (Books)

Considering the possibility digital books might bring us closer to the physical artwork

A quite lovely little thrift store painting that I perched on the wall behind me at the actual talk, in lieu of slides

October 28, 2011 | Books in Browsers | San Francisco

Books in Browsers, the scrappy sibling to O’Reilly Media’s highly influential Tools of Change conference, remains a bright gem from a time period when were were all excitedly grappling with this new thing called digital books. The grappling continues, but it’s become bigger business and Books in Browsers has folded up its tent. I’m thankful to Peter Brantley for organizing such an event and with such a wonderful cast of characters, and also for being an early supporter of my work at Hol Art Books.

For this talk, for better or worse, I pulled out the inner drama kid in me and this functioned more as a performance than a talk. An alternate title might have been, The Romance of the QR Code. The full text is below, or you can download it as an EPUB above.

Complete Text

We are here talking about beautiful books, and is there anything more beautiful than an art book? Gorgeous imagery, lavishly printed on the finest papers; expertly designed pages, bound in cloth and stamped in gold; book displays of impeccable taste, in the finest stores in the world. Books so beautiful we artfully arrange them in our homes for all to see and admire.

My name is Greg Albers. I am the publisher of Hol Art Books, but I have to confess, I hate art books. Art books are expensive (which means they’re not accessible), they’re heavy (which means they’re not mobile), and, here’s their dirty little secret, no one reads them (which means they’re not social). They are souvenirs, and status symbols. Our reverence for them has been misplaced.

But I’m not really here to talk about art books. In fact, I’m not really here to talk about art books might become e-books either. Books — whether beautifully printed or beautifully coded — are not in themselves beautiful.

Instead, books are beautiful for what they say and for the encounters they create. Encounters not only with other texts and ideas, but also with people, places and — for my field especially — objects in the real world.

As we all know, one of the great successes and continuing promises of e-books is in their mobility. Not that people can read books anywhere — after all, people could always read anywhere, including in the bathtub and at the beach — rather, that people can access books anywhere. You no longer have to go to a library or a bookstore to start reading a book. You don’t have to order a book online and wait for it to be shipped to you. Books are now instantaneous and everywhere. As creators and sellers of e-books, we must start thinking more, about this Where.

Where will our readers be when they discover our books? Where will they go to read them? Can we give them book suggestions based on their location? Can virtual bookstores exist in actual places? Can every place and thing lead us to a book and vice versa?

Here is our chance to connect books and readers directly to their subjects in the real world. And this is my vision:

I am an art museum visitor.

Walking through crowded galleries one day, I come across a painting that I am particularly drawn to, though I can’t say exactly why. There’s just something about the look of it.

I stop and glance at the label to find the name of the artist, but I don’t recognize it. I look back at the painting … I stare at it … I take out my phone and take a couple pictures … I copy down the title and the artist’s name on the back of my museum map … I stare some more.

My focus fluctuates from the whole composition down to smaller areas and even individual brushstrokes. I think about what’s going on in the picture, about how it’s been painted, about the colors. I wonder why I like it. I wonder what makes it important and good enough to hang in this museum. I wonder what other people think.

After awhile, I look back to the label and I read its six sentences. As I read, I look back to the painting, referencing what the label says with what I see. Honestly, it doesn’t all make sense to me, but still, I keep looking.

It’s then I notice that at the bottom of the label is a book icon with a QR code in the middle and a short URL. I take out my phone and I scan it.

I touch okay. In moments, the painting before me is in my hand. Small, yes, but there. I swipe a finger across it and find that I’m in a book. The table of contents is like the label on the wall, but here, each individual sentence leads to an essay: there’s a biography of the artist; a conservator’s examination of the painting; a short story from the time and place of the painting’s original creation; a letter from the artist to his dealer; a poem.

I take two steps back, sit on a wooden bench in the middle of the gallery and in front of the painting, and I read. Not all of the book, but some. I read and I look. There are passages already highlighted in the book and I mark one myself. With the highlight I type in: “I love this too”.

I notice that the woman seated next to me is also reading on her phone. I watch as she lifts her eyes to some detail in the painting, pauses, and then goes back to read some more. She looks up again but this time turns her head to me and — with a glance to my phone — smiles, just a little.

I take my book home with me. I read more on the train, and later in bed. I find other books to read. I learn about the museum library and the section it has dedicated to the artist. I email the curator a question. I see that there’s a book club meeting at the museum to discuss the book and the painting, and there’s an online forum I can visit anytime.

I find myself thinking about the painting often.

I am back at the museum the next weekend. I spend some time with my painting first, and then I move on to the next.

Thank you.

thanks for visiting!