Amazon’s Really Big Idea

Amazon’s Really Big Idea

A searchable archive of all its books — where you can search the text. And there’s a prototype already working. See this report. Quote:

“Amazon’s new archive is more densely populated than the early Web was, but it’s still far from complete. With its 120,000 titles, the archive has about as many books as a big brick-and-mortar store. Still, this is plenty to create a familiar sensation of vertigo as an expansive new territory suddenly opens up.

The more specific the search, the more rewarding the experience. For instance, I’ve recently become interested in Boss Tweed, New York’s most famous pillager of public money. Manber types “Boss Tweed” into his search engine. Out pop a few books with Boss Tweed in the title. But the more intriguing results come from deep within books I never would have thought to check: A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole; American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis; Forever: A Novel, by Pete Hamill. I immediately recognize the power of the archive to make connections hitherto unseen. As the number of searchable books increases, it will become possible to trace the appearance of people and events in published literature and to follow the most digressive pathways of our collective intellectual life.

From the Hamill reference, I link to a page in the afterword on which he cites books that influenced his portrait of Tweed. There, on the screen, is the cream of the research performed by a great metropolitan writer and editor. Some of the books Hamill recommends are out of print, but all are available either new or used on Amazon.

With persistence, serendipity and plenty of time in a library, I may have found these titles myself. The Amazon archive is dizzying not because it unearths books that would necessarily have languished in obscurity, but because it renders their contents instantly visible in response to a search. It allows quick query revisions, backtracking, and exploration. It provides a new form of map.”

Update: lovely piece by Steven Johnson on the implications of this.