At Slate, Paul Collins points out that Google Book Search heralds a new era of outing plagiarists. The searchable database of many thousands of books is a boon to researchers, but it also greatly eases the discovery of co-opted passages. Collins mentions a couple of examples and posits that “given the popularity of plagiarism-seeking software services for academics, it may be only a matter of time before some enterprising scholar yokes Google Book Search and plagiarism-detection software together into a massive literary dragnet, scooping out hundreds of years’ worth of plagiarists – giants and forgotten hacks alike – who have all escaped detection until now.” He also predicts that “in the next decade at least one major literary work [will get] busted.”
As Google battles publishers over copyright issues, an AP story out this evening announces that Google Print “on Thursday will begin serving up the entire contents of books and government documents that aren’t entangled in [the] copyright battle.” I don’t think it’s live quite yet as my searches failed to turn up anything interesting, but we’ll see tomorrow. Here are some more details on what we can expect to see from Google Print (via the Washington Post):The list of Google’s so-called “public domain” works – volumes no longer protected by copyright – include Henry James novels, Civil War histories, Congressional acts and biographies of wealthy New Yorkers.Google said the material … represents the first large batch of public domain books and documents to be indexed in its search engine since the Mountain View-based company announced an ambitious library-scanning project late last year.Update: So Google has rolled out the search function if you want to take it for a spin.
The result isn’t that flashy, but Google’s addition of Maps to its Google Book Search points to the promise of digitizing books. As we have seen with the layers of data that Amazon has added to its database – things like Statistically Improbable Phrases and Capitalized Phrases – digitization of books makes it easy for people to draw connections between books. But digitization also allows for layers of explanatory and reference data to be made easily accessible.Of course, there have long been annotated editions of many books, but in those cases we are limited by the editors’ decisions on what material deserves greater explanation and what material stands on its own. With the Internet placing a universe of information at our fingertips, it is now easy for readers and scholars (especially those with access to library databases) to supplement their reading with background information and to find related texts. But sites like Google Books promise to make this process even easier and more fruitful by allowing the books themselves, in their digitized form, to be analyzed and enhanced.In its own modest way, adding Maps to Google Books is an example of this. Have a look at the Google Books page for Around the World in 80 Days (scroll down to see the map). Having the map there adds something to the experience of this geography-centric novel, and it’s not much of leap to wonder if a similar system might be able to pull in related images (say, hot air balloons of that era) or contemporary newspaper reviews of the book. The possibilities are almost endless, and, though one must always make the point that such technology is meant to enhance and not replace our beloved paper books, further exploration down this road would be a great thing for literature and learning.On the subject of maps, specifically, as a map lover, I’m excited to see Google trying this out because, like Jerome Weeks, I believe that nearly every book would benefit from the addition of a map or two.
Paidcontent.com pointed out that the New Yorker has unveiled a new digital edition of the magazine. It’s basically a replica of the magazine — ads, cartoons, and everything — that you can “page through” using a special interface. This is pretty nifty and probably useful for New Yorker obsessives who want to get the full New Yorker experience at work without having the magazine in plain view, but what’s really cool is that if you sign up, you get every issue going all the way back to 1925 in this format. In addition, you get the digital edition first thing on Monday, so you don’t have to wait until Wednesday or Thursday for the magazine to show up in the mail.Subscribers can set it up here. It’s a little confusing. Once you’ve logged in, there’s a link at the lower right to activate the digital edition site. You need to go through a couple more prompts (they email you a password) and then you have full access. Non-subscribers can try it out free for four weeks here.
The following is excerpted from the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, co-edited by Jeff Martin and Millions founder C. Max Magee. The book includes inventive, thoughtful, and funny pieces in which Jonathan Lethem, Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel. Joe Meno, Deb Olin Unferth, and many others consider the landscape as the literary world faces a revolution, a sudden change in the way we buy, produce, and read books. The book is available now on Amazon and in all good bookstores.
There are certain divisions in the world that seem unnecessary to me. Consider, for a moment, the ebook/paperbook divide. On the one side, the traditionalists, with their—okay, our—love of the objects that we call books. The texture of the paper, the beautiful dust jackets. Being able to see how much of a book remains to be read, as pages stack up on the left and diminish on the right. The ability to see two pages at once and have a sense of what’s coming. Writing in the margins.
On the other side stand the gadgeteers with their cold slim readers, packing entire libraries into a volume the size of a novella, flipping pages on a touchscreen. I don’t own a digital reader, but I understand why other people do. Aside from the natural joy of owning a shiny new gadget, there’s an undeniable appeal from a purely minimalist standpoint—why agonize over which two books to cram into your suitcase, when you can bring your entire library with you?—and I have to imagine that ebook aficionados have a much easier time of moving than I do. When I move to a new apartment, it’s a Herculean task involving towering mountains of impossibly heavy small boxes with labels like Fiction: Ames – Bellow and Theatre Books: Box 1 of 10. It isn’t pretty.
Digital readers and paper books have little in common. But both objects have considerable merit, and this is why I think we should combine the two.
The future of the book that I imagine involves an object that looks, in every detail, like a high-quality hardcover. The difference is that there’s no title visible on either the cover or the spine. When you first open the book, all the pages are blank. Hundreds of pages of high-quality paper—a slight sheen might hint at the underlying circuitry—with nothing on them. The cover is blank too.
You might mistake the object for a blank notebook, except for the discreet touchscreen on the inside of the front cover. Here you scroll through your library, and select the book you want to read. For old time’s sake, let’s say The Catcher in the Rye. Once you’ve made your selection the pages remain blank for just a heartbeat—the process taking place in the heart of the book’s machinery is, after all, quite complex—but then the famous orange carousel horse of the first edition dust jacket rises slowly out of the blankness of the front cover, like an image rising out of Polaroid film. JD Salinger‘s name appears on the spine above the publisher’s logo, and then all at once the pages begin to fill. The book is typesetting itself.
The first page is no longer blank. Beneath the Chapter One heading, the famous and incorrigible opener has appeared: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born…”
The object in your hands looks and feels like a book. The pages feel like paper. You flip through them, and all the words are there waiting for you; there’s no waiting for a screen to refresh. The object might even be made, with a judicious dash of library-scented accord from my favorite perfume shop, to smell like the books you grew up with. You can make notes on the pages if you wish, provided you use the special digital pen attached by means of a thin ribbon to the spine.
But suppose you get tired of reading Salinger after awhile, or you finish the book. You go back to your touchscreen just inside the front cover, and flip through your library until you find something that appeals to you. Select the new volume, and the process begins again. Just a moment of blankness, while Salinger’s carousel horse fades out. The notes you took in the margins have vanished, but they’ll be there again the next time you want to read The Catcher in the Rye.
And then, Leo Tolstoy‘s name on the spine. Turn the first page and the text of Salinger’s book has dissolved. The first line of the novel now reads as follows: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The book in your hands is now Anna Karenina.
It only sounds like magic. Electronic paper—flexible sheets of paper-like material, comprised in various versions of polymer, microcapsules of oil, arrays of electrodes—has been around since the ‘70s, when Nick Shelton at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center created the first sheet of the stuff. Research continued in the decades that followed, and in early 2010 LG debuted a new prototype: a sheet of electronic paper with the dimensions of a newspaper page, weighing only 130 grams.
In the photographs that accompanied the press release, the material holds a glassy patina; a man and a woman hold sheets of LG’s new paper in what looks like the Tokyo subway system, and the sheets hold the front page of a daily newspaper. It doesn’t quite look like paper, but it’s close. It’s so close.
Is there any reason why, a few years from now, when the technology’s become lighter and better and less expensive, we couldn’t make entire books out of this stuff? There are of course logistical problems to consider—how to manage the display of a 600-page novel on a device that only has 350 pages, for instance—but this sort of thing doesn’t strike me as being particularly insurmountable.
It seems to me that the failing of our digital readers to date is that the focus has been almost entirely on the content. Our earliest books were sublimely executed works of art, years and decades and entire lifetimes poured into the lettering and ornamentation of medieval manuscripts. The printing press changed all of this, of course, but the ghost of that early obsession with beauty has lingered. Beautiful books have remained with us, in ever-changing form, through all the seasons of publishing: gorgeous book jackets, impeccably designed interiors, gilt lettering on cloth. But digital readers have been focused solely on finding the best possible means of presenting the book’s words, of inventing the ideal flatscreen to display them on. I fear we’re nearing a point of forgetting the idea of books as objects, as works of art whose form, not just whose content, we might consider preserving.
The book in your hands has transformed itself into Anna Karenina, but why stop there? One of the major problems of reading is the difficulty of ignoring the chaotic world around you. We’ve all been stuck in airplanes with screaming small children. Because blocking out this sort of thing by sheer willpower alone can be impossible, I wonder if perhaps our books might be enlisted to help us out.
I read a fascinating article a few years back about directed-sound technology, and its potential for in use in museums. One of the aural problems of museums is that some patrons want to hear information about what they’re standing on front of, whereas others would vastly prefer to contemplate in silence. The idea with the directed-sound technology is that if you’d like to learn more about a particular display, you step into a specific location in the room—perhaps indicated by a circle of light projected onto the floor—and there, only there, at that particular point, in a projected column of ultrasonic sound, you hear a recorded voice explaining the nuances of 16th-century Chinese calligraphy or the finer details of the Battle of Brooklyn.
Directed-sound technology has advanced to the point where beams of sound can be directed at an individual in such a way that the people sitting on either side of them will hear nothing. All of this makes me think that the book, once the technology advances a little further and can be easily embedded without adding too much weight, should have a noise-canceling button. Click it and step into the circle of light; you’d be cast, all at once, into your own private aural landscape. Perhaps it might enable silence, or some sort of soothing ambient noise. Care would have to be taken not to zone out completely at, say, airport departure gates, but I think the concept has promise.
I was thinking the other day of sound-enabled picture books. It would be a strange and dazzling new form. Page upon page of gorgeous illustrations, with music, with text and spoken word that no one but the reader could hear. An interactive art project. Or imagine the more practical applications for travel books: on the page listing useful phrases for the country you’re traveling in, you could hear the pronunciation before you spoke, so as to avoid making a fool of yourself when you’re trying to order coffee in Slovakia.
For all my love of the electronic innovations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there are certain tactile experiences that I’m not willing to surrender. The experience of turning pages is one of them.
I love machines, but I want the book I hold in my hands fifty years from now to look like the books I remember from childhood. I want to be able to see two pages at a time, I want to take notes in the margins, I want to flip backward to see what I missed. Most importantly, I want the bookstores I love to still exist in the future.
The conveniences of the digital age are inarguable. I’ve never really liked grocery shopping; it’s nice that now I can do it online at midnight. I feel the same way about buying shoes. But books? That’s something else entirely.
I imagine the bookstores of the future. They’d look very much like the bookstores of now, except it’s possible that they might be a little smaller; if most people are downloading books to machines, they’d need much less stock. A few people might still want to buy the old kind of book, the kind made out of paper, especially at author events. Those of us with the new books, the ones made out of electronic paper that can transform into other books in our hands, will browse for a while and then perhaps, if we happen to be carrying our new books with us, pay for and download the volumes we want to buy. Or perhaps we’ll buy books on a volume the size of a flash drive, to be downloaded to our new books when we get home later.
And then we’ll sit in parks and subways and on sofas, the same as we have since the invention of the printing press, and we’ll flip through the pages of our beautiful machines.
NPR’s On the Media ran a feature recently on entrepreneur Joshua Karp’s new startup the Printed Blog (TPB), a web aggregator that takes the best online content and… puts it on paper. Karp plans to print TPB twice a day and hand it out for free in major urban outlets. Content and advertising will be localized, and readers can go online to discuss and recommend articles and content they would like to see.The timing of the announcement coming, as it does, close on the heels of the Atlantic Monthly’s (hopefully) exaggerated reports of the NYT’s demise seemed almost comical. My initial reaction was to check the calendar. Having confirmed that it wasn’t April, I became incredulous, made snarky comments to the radio, and finally accepted the idea.Although at first glance Karp’s project seems endearingly quixotic, it does have one thing going for it: depending on how the content is selected, it could be an excellent tool for encouraging the development of a sense of physical community. Although the web has successfully connected people with similar interests, it hasn’t done the same for people with similar addresses. TBP could be a great tool for making highly visible, localized announcements. Having a block party? Print an ad in TBP’s morning edition. Canceled because of rain? An announcement in the evening edition will come out just in time to catch commuters on their way home. If done in the right way, TBP has the potential to provide a legitimate and much needed public service. Not to mention it will be a great way to expose less web savvy members of the community to some of the fantastic writing that’s being done on blogs today.On the downside, it will have to overcome several major obstacles. First, iPhones and similar technology have already made the web portable. I assume the target demographic is web savvy young professionals between the ages of 22-30, a hunch confirmed by the web site’s blog (yes, they have a blog). This is precisely the group that is most likely to already have the Internet in their pocket, delivering their favorite blogs to them at the speed of inanity. TPB might introduce them to new content, but isn’t that what Digg and Delicious are for? And as for the reader suggested content… If the readers don’t access blogs offline, what makes Karp think they’ll log on to share their opinion? To make matters worse, the people for whom this service would be most useful, those without the means or knowledge to use computers, won’t be able to vote. A mismatch between the content and the audience seems inevitable.The second issue is cost. Karp estimates that his initial venture will cost $15,000. He anticipates selling ads for $25 apiece, meaning he’ll have to sell 600 to cover his overhead. Because the publication is intended to be “hyper-localized,” I assume he’s going to be targeting local businesses for ad revenue. I’m not sure how many of them will shell out that kind of money for a daily ad, but as a point of comparison, Google ads are free as long as no one clicks on them (and very cheap even then), run indefinitely, and are guaranteed to reach your target audience, regardless of their geographic location (a concern if you’re trying to advertise to tourists). Hard to beat that deal. And besides, isn’t the lack of willing advertisers print media’s biggest problem? I’d love to have seen Karp pitch that business model to potential investors. Granted, local free papers, like the San Francisco Guardian, seem to be doing well.The experiment begins on January 27th in Chicago and San Francisco, but if successful I suppose the model can be easily rolled out at minimal cost nationwide. Although, I’m still skeptical, The Millions never turns down free publicity. Why don’t you suggest they include us in their first issue?
Who knew. More than ten years after Amazon revolutionized retailing and became a dot-com-boom-and-bust poster child, online bookstores are once again a hot topic. Part of the reason is that corporate book retailing is experiencing a particularly tumultuous period. As we discussed over the weekend, Borders is in dire straits and may be bought out by Barnes and Noble within months. (Meanwhile, Barnes and Noble isn’t exactly hale – its stock price is down 32% in the last twelve months.)Borders, as we’ve noted, has been grasping at new strategies to keep it afloat. The latest is to ditch its long-standing relationship with Amazon to open its own online bookstore. Can Borders possibly gain ground on Amazon? I tend to agree with this sentiment: “‘Amazon just dominates,’ said Fred Crawford, managing director at turnaround consultant AlixPartners who has studied consumer attitudes toward major booksellers. ‘Amazon is nearly unassailable.'”Amazon, meanwhile, is looking to reinvent book retailing once again with the Kindle. The Kindle has been both praised and reviled – guest contributor Buzz penned a worthwhile take on the initial mania that surrounded the reading device’s release last year. A few months on, rhetoric from Amazon continues to suggest that the company sees the device as a game changer and positive reviews are trickling in. Perhaps more importantly, Kindles are back in stock after a long hiatus, and they are now sporting a slimmer price, slashed 10% to $359.What happens next? It would be foolish to predict, but don’t be surprised if a few months from now we have one fewer big bookstore chain. And don’t be surprised if, a few years from now, Amazon is still rolling out new mays to sell books.
If Dan Reetz didn’t exist, it would be necessary for Cory Doctorow to invent him.
I met Reetz at New York Law School’s D is for Digitize conference over the weekend — two days devoted to the Google Books settlement and its future. It was a room filled mostly with lawyers and professors, along with librarians, publishers, a contingent of students… and Dan Reetz.
I have to paint the picture. He comes into the conference room — big, beautiful and brand-new, almost antiseptic — in a dark coat, hefting a huge black duffel bag.
Out of the bag comes a flat, mechanical-looking form of no recognizable use. It’s mutant Ikea.
It’s a transformer.
In a flurry of twists and clicks, Reetz folds it out and snaps it together —
— and when it’s finally assembled, it looks something like this:
It’s pure 21st-century ingenuity. Reetz designed his first book scanner because, as a grad student at North Dakota State, he was appalled by textbook prices. Then he built it, in two days, from old digital cameras, cardboard, and scrap parts; a friend wrote the page-processing software.
Reetz’s latest model, the one pictured above, is built not from junk but from laser-cut plywood, and it folds down and fits into an overhead luggage bin. It’s perfect for book-scanning special ops.
Now, line Dan Reetz up with the other Dan at the conference: Dan Clancy, who directs Google Books. To review: Google has scanned more than 10 million books, the many of them still copyrighted but long out-of-print, and therefore unavailable unless you can get to a big university library. The Google Books settlement provides one path to make those books available to everyone, online.
So at one end of the spectrum, we have Google’s ambition and scale: the vision of a complete digital library and the unique ability to actually pull it off. At the other end, we have Dan Reetz’s ingenuity and openness: the delight of a $200 book scanner and a PDF parts list ready for printing if you want to make your own.
Although there was plenty of teeth-gnashing in that conference room — and truly, there’s a lot not to like about the Google Books settlement — I think the Reetz-Clancy continuum augurs good things for the future of books. On one end, the recognition that books have to live online now, and that publishing has to operate at internet scale. On the other, the passion for (obsession with?) independence and the cottage-industry craftiness that’s been the best part of book publishing for so long already.
It was encouraging to have both ends in the same room — part of the same conversation.