Have you tried Google’s Book Search? Talk about frustrating. I just keyed in “nabokov crown jewels pale fire,” to find the latest thinking on that novel’s supreme and running joke. I got some glimpses of Brian Boyd’s 1999 book-length analysis, but mostly its conclusion—along with the full index, the irony presumably unintended. I got two quick glosses on Nabokov’s famous interview in which he mocked the scholar and critic Alfred Appel’s eagerness to learn the secret of the jewels: “Where, please, are the crown jewels hidden?” Nabokov’s nonanswer answer was included, and in one case nothing else, since the “snippet view” (from a collection of Nabokov’s nonfiction, Strong Opinions) was just 30 words long, some of them chopped in half. There was a touch more disembodied analysis from a Cambridge University Press collection, but basically that was it.
To read recent coverage of Google’s plans to scan every book (with or without the permission of the publishers), index it, and make it available digitally, you’d think Google itself had found the crown jewels. The New Yorker borrowed a Google executive’s description of the book project—“our moon shot”—as the title of an article. Jason Epstein in The New York Review of Books posited the saga of the Google founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, as a kind of fast-tracked recapitulation of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. More precisely:
The confrontation of founders who wish to do only good with the complex reality of their astonishing commercial achievement is an issue of biblical scope which calls to mind the expulsion, naked and trembling, of our ancestral parents from prelapsarian Eden into a world where choice is obligatory and error inevitable, a blessing and a burden upon themselves and what Milton called, with mixed feelings, their hapless seed.
Google’s effort, Epstein went on, creates “for the first time in human history … the theoretical possibility that every book ever printed in whatever language will be available to everyone on earth with access to the Internet.” But all of this assumes people will actually want to use Google Book Search.