In 2006 a modest paperback of just 25,000 words and one eight-page colour insert section won a Montana New Zealand Book Award in the awkwardly named ‘Lifestyle and Contemporary Culture’ category. How to Look at a Painting was written by a curator at Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Justin Paton had produced wonderfully incisive texts for exhibition catalogues and academic works, but this book for Awa Press was his first work for the general reader. He wrote it over the course of one intense month. On the strength of the Montana Award, the book has to date gone into five reprints and a special hardcover edition. Creative New Zealand has sponsored the printing of an extract which went into 2500 gift bags at the Melbourne Art Fair. The book has been studied in numerous places, from high school art classes to overseas universities. It has changed people’s perception of art. This year it will be the basis of a 12-part television series, narrated by Paton himself, which will screen on TV One.
Would any of this have happened had the book not won the accolade of a major literary award? Maybe: How to Look at a Painting is one of those rare books with the power to inspire strong personal attachment, even (as we are often told by readers) a form of love. But maybe not: thousands of new books, local and imported, land on the shelves of New Zealand bookstores every year. Few of those published in New Zealand, lacking the massive pre-publicity of overseas blockbuster titles, sell more than a couple of thousand copies; most quickly disappear without a trace.