It seems that Google Books is one of the talking points of the Frankfurt book fair this year. Angela Merkel has waded into the fray to condemn the enterprise, citing its (potential) violation of copyright. As an author, I ought to be right behind such denouncement of this fiendish ploy to make our words freely available to all.
Maybe I’m naïve, but so far I think that Google Books is a rather wonderful thing. For a start, I’m not aware that there is any way to actually download and print the stuff – and who on earth is going to want to read it in this format online? And it seems that none of the books is provided in its entirety – there are pages missing, which would be infuriating if you do plan to read the lot. But more to the point, so far Google Books has encouraged me to actually buy some books that I’d not have bought otherwise: in the course of my research, I can find titles that I’d never known existed, get a good idea of their contents and make the decision about purchase via the online secondhand sellers. My only other option, if I’d discovered the books at all, would have been to make a trip into the British Library, by which point I’d have probably ended up reading them there rather than bothering to buy them. (Besides, if a book is truly relevant and interesting, I want to own it – and thanks to the wonders of the internet, it’s generally possible to do that for little more than the [inflated] cost of postage. Hopefully bookshops are benefiting from this too.)
And in the course of completing the endnotes section for my latest book, I’ve found Google Books a godsend. Inevitably there are quotes in my text that either I’ve not annotated correctly in my notes or for which I’ve never quite tracked down the original citation in the first place. With a text search in Google Books, I can locate them instantly in the books I have at home, rather than having to flick endlessly through the pages trying to find where the damned things were. Or I can, say, go straight to the original old texts by the likes of Walter Pater and discover the quote in its original context rather than at several removes. None of this does anything to deprive writers of sales, and indeed many of the relevant books are (at least in my case) old and out of copyright (and print), the authors long dead. As a result, I completed the endnotes in a couple of days, when they dragged on forever with my previous book. It was a telling indication of the way the technology has advanced, for the better, in just a couple of years. Personally, I’m looking forward to the Library of Babel that is Google Books expanding indefinitely.