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Would I look cute on a book cover? … yes, according to the fluffy kitten theory. Photograph: Nevena Uzurov/Getty Images/Flickr RF

Do you judge a book by its cover? Designers Jon Gray and Jamie Keenan shared their theories on attracting readers – from cute cats to alluring perfume – at the Edinburgh book festival.

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Guardian

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English artist David Hockney in a studio with some of his work, circa 1967. (Tony Evans, Getty Images)

With the deaths last year of Lucian Freud and Richard Hamilton, David Hockney suddenly catapulted into position as England’s leading painter. Although the cultivated image of a dandified English schoolboy in white pants, mismatched socks, polka-dot bow tie and beanie is long out of date for an artist who, at 74, is identified with iconic 1960s paintings of Los Angeles swimming pools, the thought is a bit of a shock. Still, the timing couldn’t be better for this enjoyable and well-sourced book, which — like Hockney’s own work — is both conversational and perceptive.

The artist’s paintings serve as chapter headings in the first, fluent volume of Christopher Simon Sykes’ planned two-part biography. The list, roughly but not rigidly chronological, is not a gimmick.

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Christopher Knight
Los Angeles Times


On the record … OMA’s vast publishing output on show at the AA School, London. Photograph: Architectural Association

In Britain we’re sceptical of the idea of the architect as intellectual. Most people probably aren’t aware that there’s a whole realm of architecture that doesn’t involve erecting buildings. But from Vitruvius in the 1st century BC and Alberti and Palladio in the Renaissance to Le Corbusier in the 1920s, architects have always produced books, not just to publicise their work but to lay down the latest architectural rules.

Often these titles tend to be monographs. Light of text and glossy of photograph, they are hefty volumes, records of achievement – a chance for the architect to say “Look on my works, ye mighty, and leave them casually stacked on the coffee table”. But Rem Koolhaas’s books, produced with his Rotterdam-based practice Office for Metropolitan Architecture, are different, as a new show at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London’s Bedford Square demonstrates. On a plinth in the middle of the room sit 400 volumes bound together in black folders. They look like endless meeting agendas, but they are the complete works of OMA from 1978 to 2010. If you stood this object on the floor, it would be as tall as two people, one stood on top of the other. No wonder the show is called OMA Book Machine.

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Justin McGuirk
Guardian

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There’s one big question you need to ask when presented with the technological enhancement of an art form: “Is it Smell-O-Vision?” Remember Smell-O-Vision? No? Well, that’s my point. This revolution in cinema was based on the idea that the experience would be more immersive if, say, a love scene was accompanied by the scent of roses being pumped through the theatre’s air-conditioning; or that when the zombies showed up, the theatre would be alive with rotting haddock. Everyone hated it, of course. They emerged from cinemas smelling of fishy roses.

Likewise, there was a time around the middle of the last century when the world was briefly convinced 3D was the future of cinema. Red and blue spectacles, it was imagined, would be routinely employed to watch a film. Flat projection would be a historical curio. In the event, of course, the 3D craze gave us the nadir of the Jaws franchise and a short-lived comic strip called Adolescent Radioactive Black-Belt Hamsters.

Which brings us to Enhanced Editions, a new e-book project cooked up by Peter Collingridge of the digital design company Apt Studio, currently working in partnership with Canongate. Later this month, Nick Cave’s new novel The Death of Bunny Munro – the story of a sex-maniac travelling salesman taking his last road trip – goes to market through the iPhone App Store, in an enhanced edition that is being launched before the print version.

The Enhanced Edition does some of the things we’re now accustomed to seeing as standard in electronic texts: you can faff with fonts, change colour, bookmark it, and so on; and there’s some smart social networking stuff attached. But it also includes enhancements that could have a noticeable effect on the experience of reading. Instead of paginating the book conventionally, it’s presented as a continuous vertical scroll (one geek-pleasing trick is that you can adjust the scrolling speed with the angle of tilt of the phone), and the App includes an audiobook that syncs with the written text. Pop on the headphones, thumb the screen and Cave’s voice picks up where you left off.

This is interesting. It could be regarded as a gimmick, but if it catches on, it will subtly change the way we experience fiction. If you half-read, half-listen to a book, your experience of reading will partly be shaped by the voice of the audiobook; your memories of the text will be coloured by how you took it in, passage by passage. The other thing is that it comes with a soundtrack, composed by Cave and Warren Ellis, one of his Bad Seeds. Soundtracked novels: now that really will change the experience. Could the soundtracked novel be to fiction what song is to verse? Or could it be what Smell-O-Vision was to cinema? Inevitably, some authors – like Cave – will be more suitable for the treatment than others. I can’t see a huge market for an iPhone edition of Hotel du Lac, with Anita Brookner improvising scat jazz accompanied by a steel band.

So, some whiffs of roses and haddock. But the breadth of the package, it seems to me, is at the very least a weathervane. There’s no ignoring the fact that the e-book will, not too far from now, compete with the paperback; and the likelihood is that some readers won’t just use them to read. It’s a longstanding truism to say that every reader reads a different book. As more packages like this find their way to market, the book itself, as well as its readings, will become more plural, more blurred, and less monolithically booky. Smells good to me.

Sam Leith
Guardian

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Animal figure in carved limestone found in the Judean desert and dated at 10,500-8,300 bce. From the Natufian culture which ranged from Southern Turkey to Sinai.

Why do humans make art? It can be lovely. It can be stimulating. It absorbs some of the finest minds in any society. It can change hands for ridiculous sums of money. And dizzying edifices of commentary have been built around it since the time of the Greeks. But all those aspects of art beg a fundamental question: why do we do it?

In his new book, The Art Instinct, Dennis Dutton looks to the man of the moment, Charles Darwin, for an answer.

Dutton suggests that because all humans make art, and people from many different cultures appreciate similar subjects in art, art is an evolutionary adaptation, helping humans survive as individuals and as a species. Eventually, over the millennia, art-making traits have been absorbed into the repertoire of human instinct.

“Show me something pleasurable and I’ll show you something which is very likely associated with Pleistocene adaptation,” Dutton says in conversation about the book…

His opinions of art are full of surprises. He is scathing of “postmodern” art which, descending to irony and kitsch, tells us nothing about ourselves and ignores our hankering for the sublime. Then he writes of the modernists with admiration: even Malevich, the Soviet suprematist, whose famous black square must be as far from Pleistocene tastes as one could imagine, and Duchamp’s “ready-mades”, including Fountain, the infamous urinal, which he can parse at length.

“I have an answer to that!” he says when asked why some people get so het up when faced with art they don’t like.

“When you see that reaction from the conservative, from the naive, or people on the street who say ‘That’s not a work of art’, they are harking back to the older sense of art as an honorific,” he says. “Those of us who are deeply into the art world stop making these kinds of assessments.

“But who knows? Maybe the guy in the street has a point, too. If art is a display of skill, if it is designed to reveal some kind of human spirit, then of course we might feel there is something missing in Jeff Koons’s jokes, or Damien Hirst’s pickled sharks.”

Dutton draws a clear distinction between kitsch and great art. His discussion of them in the book is more nuanced than his explorations of neo-Darwinianism — and a long way from the preferences of the Pleistocene.

“Much the greatest art of human history comes not as an expression of religion, or even of individuality, but of a human mind trying to overcome a technical problem,” he says. “The foremost example of this is Beethoven, who flourished as a composer just at the time when tonality was breaking up and romanticism was opening. He could produce these incredible quartets, these phenomenal symphonies, because he was obsessed by the problems of his craft and his art.”

The Australian

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Damien Hirst

lascauxbulls

How far back can the history of art go? The Lascaux cave paintings in southwestern France are thought to be some 16,000 years old. The Venus of Willendorf, a plump and bosomy statuette from lower Austria, may be about 9,000 years older. A few coarse figurines – found in Morocco, the Golan Heights and other places – may be several dozen millenniums more ancient still. But some psychologists argue that the origins of art should be sought much further back. They look to the Pleistocene epoch, which began about 1.6 million years ago, when – in the course of some 80,000 generations of surviving and mating – our ancestors may have evolved the instincts that led eventually to the works of Bach, Rembrandt and Proust. “Darwinian aesthetics” is what Denis Dutton, the author of “The Art Instinct,” calls this idea, and he thinks its time has come.

Dutton is a professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand, and the founder and editor of a popular Web site, Arts & Letters Daily. The ideas that are his starting point come from a form of evolutionary psychology that began to catch on in the 1990s. It claims – in its crudest, popularized form – that some bit of human behavior is explained by the fact that we are genetically hard-wired to succeed and breed in a Stone Age environment.

Its terrain is full of pitfalls, and I suspect that Darwin would have been skeptical of it. We know so little about the environment of our Pleistocene ancestors, what they were like, and how they lived, that almost any hypothesis about which strategies might have helped them to reproduce, and thus let their characteristics ripple through the gene pool, is bound to be highly speculative. In addition, the story told by mainstream evolutionary psychology may both start too late and stop too early. When Darwin ventured into psychology, with his study of the expression of emotions, he cast his net far wider and looked at the distant common ancestors that humans share with other species. If he was right to do so, the origins of some human psychology may be older than the Stone Age. And evolution is now reckoned to be capable of working faster than was thought in the 1990s.

All of this ought to be a problem for Dutton’s book, but I rather think it isn’t. Although he endorses the popular form of evolutionary psychology in principle, his practice is more nuanced. His discussion of the arts and of our responses to them is insightful and penetrating, and I doubt whether much of it really depends on the ideas of evolutionary psychology.

His considered view is that Darwinian aesthetics sheds light on literature, music and painting not by demonstrating them to be evolutionary adaptations, but by showing how their existence and character are connected to prehistoric preferences, interests and capacities. This is a reasonable aim, and it is certainly intriguing to hear that the sorts of landscape pictures preferred by 8-year-olds around the world seem to mirror the types of flat, savannah-like vistas in which their distant ancestors may have thrived. Similarly, when reading of the pianist Arthur Rubinstein’s admission that “what he really liked in a recital was to fix his eye on some lovely sitting near the stage and imagine he was playing just for her,” it’s interesting to consider Dutton’s theory that the desire to impress potential mates played a role in spreading artistic skills among our forebears.

Dutton has evidently spent plenty of time wrestling with the theories of art propounded by thinkers from Aristotle and Kant to Clive Bell and Michel Foucault. He touches on all the major issues of aesthetics and illuminates them.

Of particular value is his discussion of three controversies: the role of artists’ intentions; the implications of forgery and plagiarism; and the status of Dadaist provocations, like Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” – a urinal put forward for exhibition in 1917. He tests these cases against a cluster of 12 characteristics that he argues are collectively definitive of art and finds that the difficulties stem from conflicts or tensions among these characteristics. Thus a perfect forgery may succeed in producing the same pleasure the original was designed to elicit, but we nevertheless feel cheated because it does not demonstrate the originality of mind we expect to find expressed in art. For Dutton, this expectation of originality derives from art’s ancient function of demonstrating that the artist would make a desirable mate.

Dutton quotes Darwin’s hope that in the distant future, psychology “will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.” Note those last two words. What makes a genuine piece of Darwinian science – like the explanation of the development of the eye – so powerful is the way in which a large number of intermediate steps are shown to lead gradually from humble beginnings to a magnificent result. No such progression of intermediate steps seems to be available for inspection in the case of evolutionary explanations of the instinct to make art. Still, Dutton’s eloquent account sheds light on the role art plays in our lives, whatever its ultimate origins.

Anthony Gottlieb
International Herald Tribune

It’s time for my traditional roundup of the books I wish I’d read this year. It was a brilliant literary year, packed with exciting new publications that I really wish I’d got around to reading. Right now, in my in-tray are new books about Joseph Beuys and Ian Hamilton Finlay – although, to be precise, the Beuys book, “Coyote” (Thames and Hudson), is a lovely-looking reprint of a photo-diary originally published in the 1970s by Caroline Tisdall of the great shaman’s encounter with a live coyote in a New York art gallery. The nice thing about picture books is that you can enjoy them without actually having to read them, and I like the look of this one. But will I give it close study? Only time will tell.

Art books this year have also included – so I gather – a magisterial essay by the great American critic Michael Fried on why photography matters as art, as never before. It is actually called Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before. This title is a gift to the would-be reader of all the latest books. Even without seeing a copy in a bookshop, let alone reading it, I know that Fried is saying something provocative – at least, it is provocative if you are at all familiar with Michael Fried’s previous books.

In the 1960s, Fried published a controversial attack on the then-new style of minimalism. The art of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, he argued, is “theatrical” – meaning that it adopts a highly self-conscious relationship with the beholder. It performs, preciously. Great art, by implication, is anti-theatrical and ignores the beholder. This critique is still immediately recognisable as a description of much of the art of today. But Fried went on to pursue his theory across centuries of art history.

In a series of brilliant books that began with “Absorption and Theatricality”, on art and the beholder in eighteenth century France, he has pursued his theme through the art of Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet and Thomas Eakins. He has been caricatured as a conservative. But now here he is, discerning anti-theatrical virtue in the camera-based art of Jeff Wall and Douglas Gordon. Sounds fascinating.

The book I most regret not having read this year is Richard Fortey’s Dry Store Room No 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. I love Fortey’s books and I love the Natural History Museum. Not only is it London’s loveliest and most rambling Victorian knowledge emporium, and the most marvellous place on earth to introduce a child to science, but it is a vital research centre whose staff include both Fortey and the authority on human evolution Chris Stringer. The strength of Fortey as a popular science writer (his previous books include Life, The Earth, and Trilobite!) is that he is a real writer. His prose is playful, seductive, digressive and literate.

Fortey communicates science’s subtle pleasures. In his field of paleontology, he is constantly pushing the reader away from dinosaurs towards tiny arthropods and obscure anatomies. To let this rambling poet of a science writer loose on the Natural History Museum seems a recipe for a truly magical book.

Jonathan Jones
Guardian Unlimited

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For a man who is both an avowed skeptic and who was once sentenced to death by Iran’s spiritual and political leader, Salman Rushdie is remarkably open toward faith. It’s not that he’s got it. “I would argue that religion comes from a desire to get to the questions of where do we come from and how shall we live,” he said Thursday at the opening of Columbia University’s new Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life. “And I would say I don’t need religion to answer those questions. Regarding origins, I think you can say [they are all wrong.] The world was not created in six days and God rested on the seventh. It was not created in the churnng of a giant pot. Or the sparks unleashed by the udders of a giant cow against the boulders of a a gigantic chasm. And regarding ‘how shall we live,’ I don’t want answers that come from some priest.” (Read “Salman Rushdie, Asian Hero”.)

“But,” he continued, “When I’m writing books, something weird happens; and the result is the books contain a large amount of what you could call supernaturalism. As a writer I find I need that to explain the world I’m writing about. As a person I don’t need it and as person I do. I would agree, that tension is irreconcilable. [But] it’s just there. It’s just so.”

Over the last few decades, the secular study of religion on America’s campuses has become a right-wing pinata. In the full understanding that they are swimming against the cultural, if not the academic, stream the folks at the new Institute pulled out Rushdie, who, although he is not one of their faculty members, writes fiction that acknowledges the centrality of faith to culture without the author’s pious participation. From his astounding breakthrough work, Midnight’s Children, through his current The Enchantress of Florence, he has been obsessed with both formal and informal belief, but from the point of view of a highly-educated Muslim-born sceptic. This potentially flammable combination combusted in 1989 when Iran’s then supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, sanctioned Rushdie’s execution by the faithful for alleged blasphemies in his fictional exploration of Islam’s origins, The Satanic Verses.

The fatwa — now more or less lifted — did not sour Rushdie from his conviction that religion is necessary to writers, if only because it provides the only available language on certain topics. “I think that a lot of us, whether we are religious or not — there are no words to express some things except religious words,” he said. “For instance, ‘soul.” I don’t believe in an afterlife or heaven or hell, yet there isn’t a secular word for that feeling that we are not only flesh and blood. Whether you’re religious or not you may find yourself obliged to use language shaped by religion.”

Under the prompting of Gauri Viswanathan, a Columbia professor of English and Comparative literature, Rushdie expressed a deep appreciation for the outward expressions of faith. “I grew up looking out my window at Kings College chapel [the iconic building at Cambridge University, which Rushdie attended],” he says. “And its hard not to believe in the capacity of religion to create beauty” with that sight in his memory. He then expressed wonder that, as a non-Christian secularist, he was invited in 1993 to preach a sermon in that same chapel and did. “There are moments in your life that surprise you,” he said.

Of course, the occasion of that pulpit stint was the fourth anniversary of Khomeini’s fatwa, over which Britain broke off diplomatic relations with Iran and during which time Rushdie, on whose head a private Muslim foundation had placed a $2 million bounty, was under police protection. Finally in 1998 Iran said it would neither “help nor hinder” Rushdie’s execution, and Rushdie resumed his version of a normal life: there was no obvious security at last week’s event. But that experience allowed him to make a strong indirect point in favor of the new Institute. Conservative clerics and talk show hosts have complained bitterly at the way that secular universities treat religion — sometimes justifiably. When scholars insist on seeing faith as a brute exercise in authoritarianism they are being almost as reductive as religious fundamentalists. But at its best, secular religious study continues to offer a freedom that institutions entrenched firmly in one or another faith tradition can simply not afford.

Rushdie emphasized this with regard to Islam, whose understanding of the Koran as an inerrant divine document dictated by an angel to the prophet Mohammed makes any Muslim study of its non-supernatural origins almost impossible. One of the several things that offended Khomeini was The Satanic Verses’ willing creation of a fiction around precisely that historical process. But in some ways historical research is more threatening than invention. “There is so much contemporary scholarship about the origins of Islam,” Rushdie said, pointing out that Mohammed lived well within the historical era. “If you insist that the text is the uncreated word of God, then the social and economic conditions of the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century are unimportant, because God works on a broader canvas than that. If, however, you are willing to look at the text as an event inside the history of the period, it illuminates the text. And I think it’s a tragedy that it’s not really acceptable to do this inside the tradition.”

He mourned that kind of limitation, that kind of self-destructiveness within religions; and he recalled what Muslims have done to fellow Muslims. He spoke of “great cosmopolitan cities, great seats of culture — to see they way they’ve been destroyed. It leads one to say, there are many things for which one can blame the U.S., but the destruction of Muslim culture by other Muslims is a self-inflicted wound. And it’s a grievous wound, I think.” But the answer, he says, is not necessarily to end religion. There is, he said, “to my mind a more beautiful approach to the world.” He added, “the answer to religion is not no religion, but another way of thinking of it. Another way of being in it.” And that may be one reason why, despite the dangers he has faced, Salman Rushdie has not stopped writing.

David Van Biema
Time


Harmony in Blue and Silver, James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Even before Marcel Proust died in 1922, ordering iced beer from the Ritz on his deathbed, his monumental novel about art and memory was being dissected for wisdom on a stunning variety of topics.

It has been celebrated for its obsessions with everything from Norman architecture to optics, homosexuality, classical music, botany, tactical warfare, fin de siècle fashion and princely copper-pot French cuisine. (In one passage the narrator describes Françoise, the enduring housekeeper, combing Les Halles for the choicest cuts of meat, like Michelangelo in Carrara, “selecting the most perfect blocks of marble for the tomb of Pope Julius II.”)

Proust has even been hailed as a pioneer in the field of brain function (“Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” by Jonah Lehrer) and as surely the strangest self-help author in the canon (“How Proust Can Change Your Life,” by Alain de Botton).

So it’s remarkable that before now no one has focused at book length on painting, a subject that dominates his novel — “In Search of Lost Time,” or if you prefer, the more melodic Shakespearean “Remembrance of Things Past” — like almost no other.

As Eric Karpeles, a painter, points out, Proust names more than 100 artists, from Bellini to Whistler, in the novel and mentions dozens of actual works from the 14th through the 20th century, making the novel “one of the most profoundly visual works in Western literature.”

In its pivotal moments, paintings often play supporting roles, as when Charles Swann, a leading candidate for fiction’s most tortured character, wills himself into love with the faithless courtesan Odette de Crécy partly because she resembles a figure in a Botticelli fresco: “The words ‘Florentine painting’ did Swann a great service. They allowed him, like a title, to bring the image of Odette into a world of dreams.”

Mr. Karpeles has now helped translate the dreamlike visual passages of Proust back into the images that inspired them. His guidebook “Paintings in Proust,” just published by Thames & Hudson, makes up a kind of free-floating museum of the paintings, drawings and engravings that figure or are evoked in the novel. Even for those who have never scaled the 3,000 pages of Mount Proust, the book presents a lush coffee-table snapshot of the artistic spirit of Third Republic France as filtered through Proust’s keen sensibility, formed mostly in the Louvre, with excursions (real or imaginative) to Florence, Venice, New York and London.

But for Proust cultists, the collection of more than 200 reproductions will undoubtedly be greeted with the literary equivalent of a hosanna. It fills a longstanding gap in the huge shelf of books — including ones by Samuel Beckett, Edmund Wilson, Roger Shattuck and Gilles Deleuze — devoted to navigating and understanding the novel. While some of the its painting references are famous enough to call the images to mind — Rembrandt’s “Night Watch,” details of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, “The Angelus” by Millet — many are not. And some of the artists mentioned, like the society portrait painter Jules Machard, have fallen so far from art history’s pages that even digging up reproductions would require detective work.

“This grew out of my own desire to be able to see these paintings in one place — and looking to see if such a book existed, I couldn’t find anything,” said Mr. Karpeles, who added that he had come across only a doctoral dissertation that focused on paintings in Proust and a book published in a small printing in Bogotá, Colombia, in the early 1990s with a number of black-and-white reproductions. “If you can’t conjure up the visual analogy that Proust is making,” he said, “then I think you lose many of the insights in the book.”

In late 2003, when Viking began publishing a landmark series of new translations of “In Search of Lost Time,” Mr. Karpeles, 54 — who fell in love with the novel as a high school student in New York and has studied it devotedly through the years — was spurred to action. “I thought, ‘Aha, this is when I’m finally going to do what I always said I was going to do, which is to track down these paintings,’ ” he said.

But the personal project grew so large that it became a professional one. Mr. Karpeles wrote a proposal to create a visual companion to Proust, twinning the images with corresponding passages from the novel, using C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s original English translation as revised by Terence Kilmartin in 1981 and D. J. Enright in 1992. Mr. Karpeles found a fellow Proustian, Robert Adkinson, an editor (now retired) at Thames & Hudson in London, in 2006 who agreed to take on the book, not an easy or cheap one to publish because of the number of reproductions and the cost of permissions.

Even when the permissions weren’t expensive, they proved complex. The estate of one minor neo-Impressionist, Henri Le Sidaner — his work is praised in the novel by a boorish lawyer, who prefers it to that of Monet — declined to participate in Mr. Karpeles’s project because of concerns that it would only remind people of Proust’s sly ridicule.

But most of the paintings woven into the novel’s pages are there because Proust loved them and used them to amplify descriptions and evoke moods. (The narrator, Marcel, an anxious traveler, compares foreboding Parisian skies to those in the work of Mantegna or Veronese, “beneath which only some terrible and solemn act could be in process, such as a departure by train or the erection of the Cross.”)

Second maybe only to music, painting is the vehicle used in the novel to examine the mysterious commerce between perception, memory and art. The art critic John Ruskin was one of Proust’s most important influences. Proust’s character Elstir, a Zen-like Impressionist thought to be made up of pieces of Whistler, Monet, Gustave Moreau, Édouard Vuillard and others, is important not only in terms of plot — Elstir introduces Marcel to Albertine, who will become his faithless love interest — but also in terms of ideas.

Elstir can come off at times as Proust’s caricature of the beret-draped Romantic, rushing to the beach at night, naked model in tow, to capture a certain quality of moonlight. But Elstir’s artistic ideal, to perceive things more innocently — or as Beckett describes it, to represent “what he sees, and not what he knows he ought to see” — is profound. And it goes to the heart of one of Proust’s main themes: that we are held prisoner by preconceptions, by habit and by the normal machinery of memory, which provides only a pale, distorted record of experiences.

At the end of the novel, the narrator resolves to devote the rest of his life to writing the novel that will become “In Search of Lost Time.” He stands at a party surrounded by many of the novel’s aging main characters and by the paintings of his beloved Elstir, which Proust has described so vividly it is easy to forget that they don’t exist somewhere, maybe in a room of their own at the Louvre.

But the insight that Proust has the narrator draw from such imaginary art seems as authentic and powerful now as it ever did: “It is only through art that we can escape from ourselves and know how another person sees a universe which is not the same as our own and whose landscapes would otherwise have remained as unknown as any there may be on the moon.”

Randy Kennedy
New York Times

When PJ Haarsma wrote his first book, a science fiction novel for preteenagers, he didn’t think just about how to describe Orbis, the planetary system where the story takes place. He also thought about how it should look and feel in a video game.

The online game that Mr. Haarsma designed not only extends the fictional world of the novel, it also allows readers to play in it. At the same time, Mr. Haarsma very calculatedly gave gamers who might not otherwise pick up a book a clear incentive to read: one way that players advance is by answering questions with information from the novel.

“You can’t just make a book anymore,” said Mr. Haarsma, a former advertising consultant. Pairing a video game with a novel for young readers, he added, “brings the book into their world, as opposed to going the other way around.”

Mr. Haarsma is not the only one using video games to spark an interest in books. Increasingly, authors, teachers, librarians and publishers are embracing this fast-paced, image-laden world in the hope that the games will draw children to reading.

Spurred by arguments that video games also may teach a kind of digital literacy that is becoming as important as proficiency in print, libraries are hosting gaming tournaments, while schools are exploring how to incorporate video games in the classroom. In New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is supporting efforts to create a proposed public school that will use principles of game design like instant feedback and graphic imagery to promote learning.

Publishers, meanwhile, are rushing to get in on the action. Scholastic, the American publisher of the Harry Potter series, recently released “The Maze of Bones,” the first installment in a 10-book mystery series that is tied to a Web-based game.

In advance of the publication of “Brisingr,” the third book in the best-selling “Inheritance” fantasy series by Christopher Paolini, Random House Children’s Books commissioned an online game. About 51,000 people have signed up since June to play and chat on message boards on the site.

But doubtful teachers and literacy experts question how effective it is to use an overwhelmingly visual medium to connect youngsters to the written word. They suggest that while a handful of players might be motivated to pick up a book, many more will skip the text and go straight to the game. Others suggest that video games detract from the experience of being wholly immersed in a book.

Some researchers, though, say that even when children don’t read much text, they are picking up skills that can help them thrive in a visually oriented digital world. And some educational experts suggest that video games still stimulate reading in blogs and strategy guides for players.

Motoko Rich
New York Times