Two centuries ago, in a poem titled The Biblomania, John Ferriar wrote of the "tall Book-shelf" that "Displays, yet guards the tempting charms within". Back at the start of the 19th century, books were expensive, precious objects, beyond the pocket of all but the rich or the truly devoted; the latter might have to choose between reading material and food.
At first glance today, when you wander into your local chain bookstore, its walls groaning as more "three for two" offers are stacked against them, it seems we're in a new age of plenty. And provided you're happy to stick with reading the latest airport potboiler or celebrity bio, you can stack your own bookshelves to your heart's delight, at a real cost that keeps going down every year.
But, if you want to read other things, you might be in more of a difficult position. I often review university press books selling for well over three figures in U.S. dollars – priced only to go in a few academic libraries, which are closed to the general reader.
Now I'm lucky, I have a 20-minute cycle-ride away from the spectacular private London Library, from which I can borrow at any one time up to 10 books that might all have that sort of value. And a 10-minute cycle away is the largest single physical repository of the world's knowledge, the British Library. So I can get access to pretty well any book I want.
But not everyone can live in the London NW1 postcode – it is quite crowded and expensive enough already, thank you, or even within range of the occasional visit. There have been developing, slowly, some digital alternatives.
I use Questia. Its coverage is patchy – there's a lot of out-of-copyright material from the Thirties and earlier, and quite a bit of recent stuff with which they've done deals with the publishers, but quite large gaps in-between. Still, at U.S. $100 a year – with lots of note-taking bells and whistles – it comes in handy. And, of course, there's the Amazon "search inside this book" facility, which can be useful in seeing if a book is worth chasing up.
But now another step – albeit it a small step – has been taken. Google Books, which has, to the concern of the publishing industry, been scanning books into online digital formats at a furious rate, has started to make them available for download.
The company is starting small, and conservatively, with books that are really, really out of copyright, dating from the early 19th century and earlier, but hopefully the scheme will grow and spread.
Of course, publishers and bookstores are going to fear their sales will be hit, but the fact is that a 19th-century edition of some classic – while it might be useful as a taster, or for someone wanting to take a quick glance, or for those who really can't afford to buy their own copy – is not going to replace a modern edition for most readers. They'll want all of the footnotes and critical apparatus to help them through the text – the value the modern editions add.
And anything that makes more information available to more people around the world, for a cost approaching zero, has to be a good thing. It is fashionable these days to moan about an "information glut". I'd look at this the other way around. Throughout the history of the human race, we've suffered from an information deficit, from the fact that a few people have been able to keep to themselves much of the world's knowledge. Now we've taken one more step to ending the drought.
All that seems to be lacking is a listing of the books available – you have to search now by title and take pot luck. But if Google doesn't fill that particular hole, I'm sure that others will. If you know of anyone who's started a list of the books available, please let me know in the comments below.