Art & Lit

Google Books: an opinion on materiality and permanence

As a lover of reading books, growing up being surrounded by these musky-scented, ever-thrilling beings is one of the many things I am thankful for. Cheeky weekend trips to Waterstones used to be, and in fact still are, the highlight of my week – that’s how I treat myself after a long week of tutorials and lectures. But, that’s normal, right?

Anyway, last weekend, as I was relating my weekly Waterstones excursion to a friend, she looked at me in near-exasperation, and said: “You do know we live in an age of technology, right? Why don’t you just use Google Books? Isn’t that so much easier and cheaper?” I for one can only agree to disagree with her. Undeniably, we live in a digital age wherein ease and timeliness of access is critical and most of us are aware that without Google books, so many essays and problem sheets of ours would still lie incomplete, but implying that Google Books can successful digitalise the reading experience is where I believe we’ve got it all wrong.

“You do know we live in an age of technology, right? Why don’t you just use Google Books? Isn’t that so much easier and cheaper?”

That said, tribute must be paid to the 10-year long battle Google fought as it defended its Google Books service against the accusations of “massive copyright infringement” thrown at them by the Author’s Guild and Association of American Publishers, among others, in 2005. Google emerged triumphant, as the US courts and even the Supreme Court in 2016, ruled that Google Books’ use of text-snippet previews was protected under the fair use doctrine entrenched in the US legal system. The service-provider is still battling several other controversies, however, including criticism on the grounds of linguistic imperialism as the majority of the books are scanned in English, resulting in a disproportionate representation of the natural languages in the digital world. Many academia personnel and scholars also resent that Google Books does not satisfactorily meet its fundamental goal of “preserving” orphaned and out-of-print books and I must say, I agree. Most of the books one finds on the server are popular, well-known literary or non-fiction works rather than the rarer species Google set out to digitalise and conserve. But, these controversies still do not take away from the unquestionably phenomenal range of books Google provides timely and easy access to, and the fact that Google Books has transformed the very concept reading in the 21st century.

However, the reading experience is a separate matter altogether. The joy of curling up in a corner, with a snack, some hot chai and the feel of a musty-smelling, tear-stained book in your hand, falling apart with wear and tear because you’ve thumbed through it one too many times, is not replicable. Its distinct smell, the fragility of its leafs, the excitement of physically turning the page as the protagonist is hanging off the edge of the cliff – how does pressing the ‘next page’ icon on Google Books on one’s iPad even compare? How does reading text snippets on Google Books create the same excitement as reading the back blurb on a book? I particularly love the internal conflict those mere ten lines of blurb create – do I find out how Will found his long-lost Father or do I continue with my problem sheet? Needless to say, the former option nearly always tempts me away from my course-work!

The joy of curling up in a corner, with a snack, some hot chai and the feel of a musty-smelling, tear-stained book in your hand, falling apart with wear and tear because you’ve thumbed through it one too many times, is not replicable.

So, by all means, admire Google Books, use it for every subject and purpose, just as I do, and respect how far technology and Google in particular has changed all of our lives. Take pride that you belong to a generation that is revolutionising life on Earth, as it were. But, every once in a while, don’t be afraid to close the tab of your browser, turn off your laptop and curl up in bed with a thriller or a romance, and as the plot unfolds, relish this reading experience in its entirety and bask in the unique joy that reading paper books will always bring.

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