The trouble with books is that they're too low-tech. Like all wood-pulp devices, they have no built-in search engine. Sure, you can look up stuff in the index. But who has the time? Certainly not the generation that is growing up with Google. According to a 2001 Pew Research Center study, 71% of online teens rely "mostly on the Internet" for their homework. As the pace of life grows faster, the tendency is to shun any information that isn't delivered fresh and piping hot to our computer screens within seconds. And that means books lose out.
At least it did until Jeff Bezos intervened. On Oct. 23, the Amazon.com CEO (and TIME's 1999 Person of the Year) unveiled a new feature called Search Inside the Book. Amazon had spent the spring and summer digitally scanning 33 million pages--that is, every page from more than 120,000 in-print titles--and putting them in a vast searchable computer archive. Before on Amazon you could look only for names of books; now, to the chagrin of some authors, you can pinpoint a text reference on the very page where it appears and call it up in a jiffy. At a stroke, the world of wood pulp and the world of wired information just merged.
Of course, Bezos is not running the archive as some kind of nonprofit virtual library. He's improving our access to books because he wants to sell us more of them. Only registered Amazon customers may use the service (registration is free but a credit-card number is required). Even the most determined searchers will not be allowed to see more than 20% of any single book. The idea is to turn us all into bibliophiles by showing just how many authors have written about whatever topic we desperately need to know more about. The first few pages are free. Once you're hooked, you'll have to charge it at the checkout.
Still, the Search Inside the Book archive is a stunning achievement. Those 120,000 titles are about as many as you would find at your local Barnes & Noble store. Even with the best cataloging system and the most helpful staff, tracking down every instance of a subject by browsing the stacks could take years. Like Steve Jobs with his iTunes Music Store, Bezos had to negotiate a maze of copyright issues and publishing-house egos to get his digital archive off the ground. Some writers in the cooking and travel genres fear a whole new kind of literary Napster situation. They say readers will too easily crib a recipe or city description without buying the book. They may have a point. Then again, how hard is it to scribble down a recipe while standing in the cooking aisle at Barnes & Noble?
To offer us the inside of every book, Amazon has a long way to go: the Library of Congress holds 19 million tomes, and about 3 million are in print. But Bezos is off to a blazing start. To go the distance, he's appealing to authors' dreams of immortality. Let us digitize your work of genius, he tells them, and the reading public will have access to it forever. Soon Amazon hopes to start its own publishing service, serving up fresh copies of any title the moment you ask for it. The phrase out of print could soon lose its meaning. And the Google generation might get a lot more interested in wood pulp. --By Chris Taylor