Will electronics kill books? Perhaps -- for some purposes

June 27, 1999|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

The war between the printed page and the electronic impulse will not soon be won. Computers are here to stay, but no amount of cybermaniacal enthusiasm will relegate books to the dingy corners of museums where armor collections collect quaintness.

The electronic book's problem: Despite hardware improvement, reading on a screen is not appealing. The exception to that resistance is in books with a primary purpose of research or reference -- data, lists, tables, chronologies.

Where is the line drawn? I don't have a comprehensive answer, but I have just found electronics irresistible in exploring art.

By coincidence, competing products with similar objectives are just hitting the market: One is a book, a compact, 5 by 6.5-inch version of "The 20th Century Art Book," at $9.95. (The full-scale, 10 by 11-inch groaning coffee table version, first published by Phaidon in 1996, lists as $39.95.) Its electronic competitor is "Art 20: The Thomas and Hudson Multimedia Dictionary of Modern Art" (one compact disk, $125).

Phaedon and Thomas and Hudson are both very serious, competent art-book publishers, both British with strong presences in America. Both entries are made to appeal to a general audience.

The "20th Century" volumes, large and small, contain 500 entries, alphabetically by artist, each one with an almost-full-page reproduction of one art piece and a brief text on the artist's work and background. They have brief glossaries of the main terms used in the texts and major movements in art of this century. The books are identical except for size.

The "Art 20" disk contains more than 3,500 images, mainly photographs of the works of art, but also of artists. Altogether, there are 2,500 separate entries. Most are single artists, listed by name and accompanied by reproductions of one or more examples of her or his work. Other entries are movements, schools, styles or are definitions of terms. The texts are the product, the publisher says, of 100 art historians, working over five years.

In fairness, it must be noted that the Thomas and Hudson disk is a vastly more ambitious and expensive enterprise than the Phaedon book. And the electronic material is not without limitations and disappointments. In both cases, many of the paintings are far from the most representative or important works of the artists. Both firms had to deal with the difficult problems of copyrights. For example, the Pablo Picasso entry includes neither "Guernica" nor "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," which most would take to be the most signature-like of his works.

The book -- both the new small form and the older large one -- is quite wonderful. You hold it in your hands, leafing, in alphabetical order, through artists both familiar and obscure. There is a sense of nourishment in rollicking along, having the eye startled -- being able to read more or less 200 words about each artist, a comprehensible mind snack.

"Art 20" does nothing for a coffee table, but it is an extraordinary demonstration of the potential of electronic references. Even to someone with a low personal geek-index it is easy to use, its on-screen guidance remarkably simple.

At $125, it is pricey (one friendly neighborhood Web site offers it at $87.50 plus handling and delivery), but it would take a half-dozen volumes, I would guess, to contain all the material on that one disk.

Most, but not all, the individual "Art 20" text entries are considerably more detailed than the book. Both are clear, concise, direct and free of serious jargon clutter.

To explore, arbitrarily, I went to Lucio Fontana, an Argentine-born Italian artist I find particularly provocative. "The Twentieth Century Art Book's" illustration was "The End of God," which is in an unnamed private collection, an oval, penetration-scarred, major canvas which speaks clearly for Fontana's principal conceptual base. The book's thumbnail essay was characteristically clear, useful, balanced.

Then, I clicked through four electronic pages. There was an equally competent, but more detailed, essay. Each of seven illustrations (which do not include "The End of God") was precisely captioned with date, medium, size and present location. At the end there was a bibliography of catalogs and other books, not exhaustive or exhausting, but very useful if you want to go further.

At any point in such searches, one can use "hypertext marking." Click on a single word. I did "Guggenheim," for the museum that published one of the books on Fontana cited on the final page. Immediately I was given 52 occurrences of Guggenheim throughout the entire program, any one of which I could instantaneously leap to.

For a student, this and other conveniences border on dangerous: You can pull together material from every entry, however obscurely related, by using associations of words and phrases and compile them as a working notebook almost instantaneously.

In looking at pictures, screen size makes a decisive difference. I installed the program on both my laptop, with a 12-inch screen, and my desktop, with 17-inch display. In both cases, fidelity was excellent, but the larger size made the works far more comprehensible. That made me yearn again for a good, brisk 21-inch screen.

Even at that, of course, it is not like looking at an original, and not even like a really first-rate, large-scale reproduction -- which many of the larger books are.

Were pictures alone the key standard, the big book would be the winner, hands down, with the disc in second place and the small book a distant third. But overall, when the vast array of other material and its convenience is considered, there is a decisive advantage to the disk. I have seen the future and it is -- in this case -- electronic. More useful than the book. But still far behind the real thing!

Pub Date: 06/27/99

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