Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Google Book: Grist for the Historical Novel

After reading Jack Finney's Time and Again five years ago, I set myself the goal of writing an historical novel. He sets a high threshold. His book's setting alternates between 1970s tattered New York and 1880s gilded New York. It combines a gripping plot, science fiction, social commentary, keen observation of humanity, and "you are there" detail. The book earned a devoted fan base, and the audio-book version is even better. The sequel based in 1912 (From Time to Time) is good but I prefer the first book.

Finney spent many hours in libraries and newspaper morgues noodling out the details, such as the seating arrangements inside horse-drawn streetcars, the view across Central Park, and how police Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes dressed and spoke. Finney makes Byrnes a scary, ambitious dude, which he was.

But what are Midwestern writers of the 2010s to do, who want to write about New York of long ago? Yes, we go and visit the libraries and cool legacy settings like Pomander Walk. But something we have that Jack Finney didn't is Google Book.

Authors, publishers, and my agent are all unhappy about the scope of Google's worldwide reach, but while they fight it out in the courts for the next decade, Google Book does much for the historical writer in search of information about how people lived, talked, and worked. Full text books, delivered free of charge to our PCs are an obvious benefit, but also valuable is its scanning of period magazines like Century, The Smart Set, and Railway Signal Engineer. Even the snippet view of copyrighted books is useful because it can be used as a sort of super-index, which saves me much time once in a library. And it's possible to do proximity searches with Google even though the function isn't as easy to use as in Proquest.

But Google's toolbox of wonders hasn't made doing a novel any faster. That's because there's such a mountain of scanned books and magazine volumes available for downloading. Skim one, and there are a few hundred more waiting to be read.

One that I decided to go all the way through was King's Photographic Views of New York (1895).

Using business-sponsored pages to cover much of his photographic and printing costs, Moses King's Boston-based printing business churned out many such city guides. The Googlized King books offer hundreds of photos, etchings and ads. The aerial drawings of New York are fascinating: they clearly show the "spine" of high buildings that ran down the wealthy center of the island, north to south, and that clustered around Wall Street.

Google Book started out keeping a low profile on its methods and even now there is not a lot of information how Google has been able to scan over 10 million books, many of which are too delicate to thunk down on scanner platen in the pursuit of lower costs. From what I can tell Google uses people to scan the delicate stuff (you can see their purple-plastic-gloved fingers in some book images) but is said to rely on automated, high-speed, page-turning scanners whenever possible.

Here's a video of what said to be a Google book scanner in action, the Kirtas APT 240. Humans load books, like feeding ammunition into a Bofors cannon, and the Kirtas does the rest.

With the help of Google Book, we can glean visual details about life back then that are likely to be missed in biographies, newspapers, or yearbooks. For example, every building owner of significance wanted a personalized pennant waving from a pole atop his building. The one decorating the Broadway Rouss department store appears to be longer than the building was high: see page 465. But the rest of the pennants look authentic and I make a note: if my character has paused at the corner of Broadway and 29th, and she's looking at Macy's up the street, if the wind is off the Meadowlands she's going to see plenty of department store pennants. They'll be blowing left to right, crossing Broadway like fairy bridges.

On page 509 is an excellent view in front of Crawford Shoe Store. The location is just off the south end of Union Square. This camera wasn't one of the “hold that pose!” models of the early years – these folks are caught in mid-stride, without blurring.

The men are all wearing hats, of course. The weather must have been seasonable since there are straw boaters among the derbies. Two policemen are standing in the street, wearing the bulbous helmets not yet made silly by Keystone Kops movies. Women are holding parasols to keep the sun off. The street is wide, paved with what appears to be brick or stone. No vehicles of any kind are in view. The sidewalks are amazingly spacious -- they look to be as wide as a street. Perched on the second floor are two oversized metal statues in niches, gazing over the shoe store's big flat sign. Roman shoe gods?

Although I'd come for the photos, I lingered for the ads. According to p. 474, when babies are fussy, mothers should give them Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, which the advertisement neglected to mention was a morphine cocktail.

Had you been a "brain worker" in 1895, and felt weak, broken down, and otherwise debilitated you could have benefited from Horsford's Acid Phosphate because It is the Best Remedy for Relieving Mental and Nervous Exhaustion (p. 482). The endorsing doctor heartily recommends it for curing "general derangement of the cerebral and nervous systems." An apt description of writers who have been spending too much time absorbing street-level history from Google Book ...

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