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I went to see this unbelievably wonderful exhibit about Picasso at the Yale Art Gallery. Small, intimate, filled with brilliant works, it chronicles Picasso's love of words and print, and its influence on him and the artists with whom he kept company. As we moved through his cubist period, his illustrations, his paintings, sculptures, lithographs, drawings and prints, his own poetry, his friendships with Braque, Gertrude Stein, Apollinaire, and many more, we came to Pierre Reverdy’s book of poems Le chant des morts (The Song of the Dead), published in 1948, which Picasso didn't so much illustrate as illuminate.

page from Le chant des morts

Near the introduction was a large table-top flat screen where you could see each page spread of the book in its entirety, flipping through the pages at a touch of the finger. We eagerly looked through it, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at different spreads, enjoying the contrast of the illuminations with the text, the way the forms brought us in to the words or moved us across the page. And we marveled at the technology. "This is the kind of ebook that I would be willing to read," a companion said.

And then we looked up.

Hung on the walls were four of the page spreads. We were stopped cold. Although the electronic version of the book was full sized, it could not capture the power of the brush strokes printed on the page. The electronic reproduction, although faithful and at high resolution, felt dead compared to the vibrancy of each paper print -- despite the fact that these were exhibited behind glass. Each spread was a work of art, to be savored for both its text and the lines of color Picasso gave them.

I wanted that book.

And then I understood something that proponents of electronic books keep failing to understand. Books are an art form. The text may be information, easily carried around and delivered by electronic means. But the solid object of a book, in its myriad shapes, sizes, colors, fonts, illustrations, illuminations, and textures, is something people crave for itself -- something they have craved for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Sure ebooks will become more popular. People have gotten used to getting text by electronic means. But I wouldn't count the rise of ebooks as the death knell for books on paper. Ebooks with be just another version which will eventually be supplanted by some new technology we haven't yet thought about, which will in turn be supplanted by something else. All the while, paper books will continue to be printed. For their own sake. Not only for the content of their words.


Thank you to Oz and Ends for the link to the Ars Technica article.

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