Newspaper Blogs

October 25, 2003

BOOK SEARCHING....So has everyone heard the news that Amazon has introduced a feature that allows you to do a full-text search of the books they sell? This is incredibly cool. I am now willing to worship the ground that Jeff Bezos walks on and (more important to him, I assume) buy all my books from Amazon in the future.

This is something that I've been pining away for pretty much forever but never thought would happen. I am constantly looking for things in books I own, and just as constantly wishing that I could search them electronically instead of flipping pages endlessly to find the passage I want. This lets me do it, and it's a boon to mankind.

However, at the risk of seeming churlish about this gift from the gods, it turns out there are a couple of hiccups. First, Amazon has available only 120,000 books so far. This sounds like a lot, but when I started experimenting by typing in random titles from my bookshelf, it took me nearly a dozen tries to finally find one that was searchable. When they get up to a million books or so, it will probably be more useful.

Second, it turns out the Author's Guild has some problems with this. I can certainly understand their concern, but I sure hope they find a way to live with this. I suspect that the danger is small for the vast majority of books, and Amazon has taken measures to make it difficult (or impossible) to browse or print out large sections of books. In general, I'm pretty supportive of authors' rights, but I've been concerned for a while that the AG's hardline stance on royalty issues is a real threat to enormously valuable services that the internet makes possible. (Then again, I'm not an author. Opposing viewpoints are welcome!)

In any case, this is all very cool and I hope Amazon is able to expand it.

UPDATE: Cooler and cooler. If you just go to the Book tab and type a phrase within double quotes in the regular search box, you get a list of all the books that contain that phrase. Type in "Kevin Drum," for example, and you'll see that my name is not mentioned once in all those 120,000 books. How sad.

Posted by Kevin Drum at October 25, 2003 03:30 PM | TrackBack


You haven't seen nothin' yet.

If you thought the www was big, just wait until computers start processing speech and video into plumbable databases.

I know Marvin Minksy's "pet" AI project/bugbear is training a computer to distinguish a dog from a cat, but once that's achieved things are going to get very interesting.

I am certain that 20 years from now personal computers will look as simplistic as the Commodore 64's do today -- in fact, they will be more different than the same, for over the past 25 years we've only had incremental gains, and taken low-hanging fruit, for the most part.

Whether or not Microsoft will be responsible for these advancements is the $64,000 question. Microsoft Research is humongous, and Microsoft proper still literally has more profits than it can safely deal with.

Posted by: Troy at October 25, 2003 03:58 PM | PERMALINK

This feature would be even more useful if you didn't know which book a particular phrase came from.

So say you enter the phrase in a general search box and it told you the book itself it came from if you didn't know or couldn't remember not just the page and context if you already know.

Posted by: 1 at October 25, 2003 04:05 PM | PERMALINK

That's what it does, 1.

I tried it once by entering a term, and it spit out a number of books which contain the term, along with the excerpts from those books that contained the term.


Posted by: Mays at October 25, 2003 04:24 PM | PERMALINK

Well then, quite useful!

Posted by: 1 at October 25, 2003 04:31 PM | PERMALINK

Mays: where did you find that feature? The only thing I saw was the search box associated with specific books.

Posted by: Kevin Drum at October 25, 2003 04:42 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, just type a phrase into Amazon's regular old search box. Put it between double quotes. The first listing(s) will be any books that have that phrase in their title. The remaining listings will be all the books -- sometimes hundreds of them -- that contain the phrase.

You could try "Kevin Drum"...

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at October 25, 2003 04:56 PM | PERMALINK

This feature has generated a lot of excitement, but I'm not sure I see why it's useful enough to make that level of excitement make sense to me. What do you folks want to use it for?

I could see using it if you're looking for a quotation or its source, but you don't remember the exact quote or its context. E.g., a friend wanted to know the source of the "if you prick me do I not bleed" line. But you can already google for the phrase and get good results. I guess an alternative to google is always good.

More useful would be to find an exact source for a quote--say you're writing a paper/article and need a quote. But unless there are *that* many authors/students out there, I still don't quite understand the buzz. Or maybe I'm just old and grumpy, because I always found the sources on my own, and damnit, we liked it.

Finally, maybe you're researching something relatively obscure, such that normal amazon book searches by title, author and subject don't yield many hits. I guess this type of search might help.

Posted by: MikeO at October 25, 2003 06:01 PM | PERMALINK

Anti-corporate bias has kept me avoiding Amazon for years, but since they started listing affiliated sites carrying used and out-of-print books and CD's that I've been looking for I've become a convert. The new search-the-texts tool is just one more plus. But are they earning any profits yet?

Posted by: fyreflye at October 25, 2003 06:09 PM | PERMALINK

Does anyone know of a scanning device for taking notes while you read?

Posted by: weas at October 25, 2003 06:34 PM | PERMALINK

An example of how it's useful. I'm doing an annotated bibliography for a library acquisitions journal, and not everything relevant has an immediately obvious title. Amazon search engine? Great help!

(I did give in to the egotistical impulse to search myself...)

Posted by: Miriam at October 25, 2003 06:37 PM | PERMALINK

Very useful for catching plagarists.

Posted by: Brooklynite at October 25, 2003 07:25 PM | PERMALINK

They need to give this feature an off-switch. Sometimes you don't want thousands of results. Try putting "Stephen King" into the search, for instance -- every book of Amazon's in which King's name is even mentioned somewhere inside comes up. I really can't see where this is useful, and if you're trying to find an obscure book that has a common title, it could be a giant pain.

Posted by: Jaquandor at October 25, 2003 07:45 PM | PERMALINK

But are they earning any profits yet?

Just reported a profitable quarter.

Posted by: spc67 at October 25, 2003 07:46 PM | PERMALINK

It'll be VERY useful if you've got a quote on a page of the manuscript that's come unhinged from its reference note.

Posted by: Julia Grey at October 25, 2003 07:55 PM | PERMALINK

I looked up "throbbing" in the Belgariad and got:

1. on Page 128:
"her rich voice throbbing with respect.

2. on Page 208:

he sang it in a voice throbbing with passion,

3. on Page 233:

". Garion lay with a throbbing head trying to sleep.

4. on Page 278:
". "My Lady Polgara," he replied in a voice throbbing with respect-with reverence even, "

5. on Page 425:
" The throbbing sound seemed to grow louder while he talked,"

6. on Page 426:
" The throbbing had become a nagging thing, almost like a dull headache. "

7. on Page 427:

" The throbbing seemed to grow louder until Garion's entire body quivered with each thudding beat."

8. on Page 637:

"Garion felt his entire body throbbing in response to what was in the casks, and the singing in his mind filled him. "

Not X-rated enough for me. I was sure it was going to be a bodice-ripper. Dang.

Posted by: Zizka at October 25, 2003 07:59 PM | PERMALINK

5960 hits for 'Bill Clinton', 1732 for 'George W. Bush'. As usual, it's Clinton on top. *rimshot*

First four results in the Bush search: 'The Lies of George W. Bush', 'The Faith of George W. Bush', 'The Very Curious Language of George W. Bush' and 'The Leadership Genius of George W. Bush'. If that's not polarization, I don't know what is. =)

Posted by: Tim P. at October 25, 2003 10:42 PM | PERMALINK

" In general, I'm pretty supportive of authors' rights, but I've been concerned for a while that the AG's hardline stance on royalty issues is a real threat to enormously valuable services that the internet makes possible. (Then again, I'm not an author. Opposing viewpoints are welcome!)"

I AM a writer and I don't disagree. Following the lead of the music industry, the AG and others seem to want to adopt a similar hard-line.

Example: After I quoted a letter-to-the-editor in my blog, the newspaper's lawyer wrote to tell me I better quit doing that (even tho I provided a link and proper attribution), implying that they would take legal action. He said I was only allowed to quote a small part. I answered in the blog and later received an email in which he told me that the whole question would likely become moot soon because the paper (a small one, not a major daily) was going to a pay-per-view system online.

Authors have lived for a long time with copiers and royalty exemptions like the ones for libraries, and--as you surmised--only in a few cases have they made any real difference: those of the mid-list (like KC Constantin, who once included a pages-long diatribe about the libraries issue in one of his novels) who are riding the rail between self-sufficiency and poverty.

I don't think the internet is any different. I don't think it will hurt book sales for some time to come--maybe never--and, on the contrary, so far seems to have contributed to a tremendous sales boom in the last ten years. But if, frightened of being ripped off--and it's a legitimate fear--authors start pressing the kind of PR nightmare hard-line the music biz is pressing, I think they'll be cutting their own throats.

Over-reaction to a threat often creates a worse situation than the threat would have even if it materialized. Everybody needs to calm down.

Posted by: maja at October 25, 2003 11:44 PM | PERMALINK

"Felix Deutsch" gets 36 hits. Heh.

But then again, I already knew my famous namesakes and also the more mysterious ones.

Posted by: Felix Deutsch at October 26, 2003 01:54 AM | PERMALINK

When I bring up the search term in context - the view of the page in which it occurs - each instance of the term is obscured by a green rectangle. Which kinda sucks. It's like it's been redacted by the White House.

Is anyone else seeing this?

When I tried using this yesterday, there was no redacting, but no highlighting of terms, either.

Posted by: Jon H at October 26, 2003 04:57 AM | PERMALINK

Internet doesn't have to mean "free". Full-text database services usually cost something, and I would be willing to pay for this.

Posted by: Jane Finch at October 26, 2003 07:17 AM | PERMALINK

Jane Finch: "Internet doesn't have to mean 'free'. Full-text database services usually cost something, and I would be willing to pay for this."

Great. And I didn't mean to suggest that everything should be free, but rather the opposite: that not everything should have a price-tag attached to it. Because that's the way it seems to be going, pushed by corporate interests which want to get paid for everything they do.

Right now, most online newspapers are free, but what if a majority of the newspapers in the country decide to go to a pay-per-view system? Right now, I read 6 or so newspapers a day; if they start charging as much as, say, the WSJ subscription, I couldn't afford to do that any more.

Worse, if the hard-liners win, neither Kevin nor I nor anyone else would be allowed to quote more than a few sentences from any copyrighted work (like newspaper and magazine articles) without risking a rights-infringement lawsuit that might shut us down entirely.

The hard-line isn't just about money, it's also about power. The major media outlets (including book publishers) have consolidated to fewer than a dozen who decide what novels get published, what programs get aired, what stories get played. The internet is, at the moment, the only real alternative to their control because it lets you shop for sources not otherwise available. Take that away by making EVERYBODY pay for EVERYTHING, and you've just handed the internet to The Dozen as well.

I wouldn't be paranoid about this if Fair Use was the standard, but that doctrine is under major attack by lobbyists for media conglomerates that own enough Senators and Congressmen to get what they want by legislation. If they win, we'll still have Free Speech, but it won't mean much because we'll only be talking to ourselves.

Posted by: maja at October 26, 2003 10:50 AM | PERMALINK

I am a writer and an artist and I don't see where any creative gets off thinking they deserved to get paid, or that they own the work. You make art, that's it, it should not be available for cap. gain. Copyright is a bad bad bad thing.

Posted by: dooflow at October 26, 2003 03:15 PM | PERMALINK

" am a writer and an artist and I don't see where any creative gets off thinking they deserved to get paid, or that they own the work. You make art, that's it, it should not be available for cap. gain. Copyright is a bad bad bad thing."

How do you make your living?

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