Like just about everyone
else, as an author and as a reader, I have been curious about Google’s much
discussed library of scanned books. The
Author’s Guild newsletter keeps me informed but I’m still not sure if I should
hope for new future royalties on past books or instead look at thebenefits of instant access to scanned books
when I write new ones.
So when the Google Book Reader showed up among the apps offered
on my still relatively new iPhone I tried it out. And I learned some surprising
One of the sample texts on Book Reader
was a Joseph Conrad novella, The Shadow
Line. Iread it while stranded inan airport waiting room, with the happy realization
that if it worked, this system would provide a handy source of emergency
The Conrad novella put me in mind of
another Conrad work,Under Western Eyes, the 1911 novel about
terrorism that had come up in a recent news story. I’m a fan of Conrad’s Secret Agent, whose agent provocateur theme
seems relevant today, so I made a mental note to read Under Western Eyes. I searched
the free books list on Book Reader and there it was—in the public domain. I could try it for free.
found reading the scanned books on the iPhone quite satisfactory. The type was clear and it was easy to drag the
words down the screen with my thumb. It
beat Kindle and the Sony reader with its irritating page refresh flicker.
But occasionally there were stutters, so to speak, in the
scanning process.An earlier reader’s
notes and underlining in the copy of Conrad being scanned confused it. Even bits of grit or loose paper appeared to throw
off the character recognition software.Words
would get random #s or &s in them. French phrases in the English would
confuse the device so it threw in asterisks and tildes and brevets.Every now and then it would give up
completely and erupt in string of dingbats like comic book cursing.A couple of underlined sentences were
suddenly reproduced photographically, in the original type, not the screen
type.Then it would angrily hit the
virtual carriage return a few times, producing a three quarterinch blank space.
My scanner doesn’t work to well,
either, but I was surprised that Google, that tech giant, did not have better
And I was really
surprised by what happened next: like a dirty photo falling from between the
pages of a book a photo popped up.Right
beside my fingers on the screen was an image of other fingers---those of the
person who had fed the pages.The
foreigner wore a single finger latex
glove---a finger condom, I would have to call it—a bright pink lilac thing. The level of care of the person’s nails was
nothing to brag about. I say person, but
I think “man” because of the lack of manicure attention.
Was it the condom
that made the picture seem obscene and pornographic?The suddenness of its appearance suggested
scanning as an unclean process; I thought with horror of the guy who found a
finger in his bowl of fast food chili.
So this was the literal hand of the
powerful Google?The fickle fingers of
the Google that holds my copyright fate in the balance?
such sloppiness say about how much we can trust Google or how much we should
fear it? Trust Google to make decent copies ofthe books they are scanning, to begin with, because as we debate the
real issues of rights versus access,most of us, I believe, took for
granted the books would be perfectly rendered.
But the scanning errors I found made the text corrupt.In addition to the mangled lines, I have no
idea how many lines or even pages could have been left out completely.The novel has a Russian setting and some of
what I took to be transliterated terms of Russian might simply have been