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Austerlitz, Google, and the Question of ebook Integrity

W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz is one of the ebooks available on the new platform provided by Google.  So, of course, I immediately signed up and bought access to the book.   One of the primary advantages touted by Google is that the ebooks you acquire stay in “the digital cloud”, which means you can access all of your ebooks from any computer and download them to most mobile devices; and even if you shift between devices you will always return to the same page that you last left. So I also got out my iPhone and went to the apps store to download the required free Google Books app.  In about a minute, I was reading Austerlitz on my computer and on my phone.

The text is easy to read and Google provides basic settings adjustments like fonts (four), text size, line height, and, oddly, the ability to toggle between left justification and fully justified texts.  On the phone app, there is also the option of “day” or “night” settings, which flips between black text on white background and white text on black background.  Books can be navigated by chapters and other key sections (title page, endnotes, about the author, copyright page, etc.) and a slider bar that goes to any page in the text.  Perhaps not surprisingly for a Google product, there is an excellent search function, which creates a sidebar with a contextualized listing of all the results.  Just click on the result you like and you are taken directly to the page where the selection you made is located.  On a computer, the sidebar stays on the screen until deleted; on a phone, it takes two steps to toggle between the ebook and the list of search results.  The search results from Google seem to appear instantaneously on both computer and phone.

Google certainly makes the user’s initial entry into their system very easy.  There is no app to download to use Google ebooks on a computer.  The only requirement is a Gmail address (and a credit card when it comes time to purchase books).  Simply go to the Google ebookstore and start browsing.

Google ebooks do not completely fulfill the promise that digital literature offers.  I was disappointed to see that it does not let the reader cut and paste quotations, which would be handy for note takers, reviewers, and those who simply like to email or blog their favorite quotations.  There are also some very odd pagination issues that will prevent ebook citations from being of any use to readers with real printed copies.   For example, the American edition of Austerlitz is 298 pages long and the British edition is even longer at 415 pages.  The Google ebook is a mere 212 pages long, including cover page, title page, copyright page, and other materials not included in the pagination of the printed editions.  On a computer, the reader normally sees a double page spread, but frequently the spread is mysteriously paginated.  For example, the very first double-page spread, representing the opening two pages of Austerlitz, is marked pp. “4-10”,  the next two double page spreads are each marked page “10,” and the fourth double page spread is marked “10-12.”  This inscrutable numbering system persists throughout the text and carries over onto the phone version, where the reader sees only one page at a time.

Many Google ebooks like Austerlitz automatically come in two formats.  The reader can toggle between something called “flowing text” and something called “scanned pages.”  Here is what Google says about the two formats:

Google eBooks with flowing text allow for better control over your reading experience, such as the ability to easily adjust the font size, line spacing and paragraph alignment. Other ebooks with original scanned pages contain text that does not adjust to the different screen sizes of your reading devices.

All of my comments above refer to Austerlitz in flowing page format.  However, let’s switch to “scanned page” format and take a look at the ebook on the computer.  Under this format, the screen becomes a single page instead of double page spread and the setting options are reduced to a zoom in or out that enlarges the page. On my phone, the scanned page format rendered the text tiny and extended the page beyond my phone’s screen, leaving the ebook utterly unreadable.  The one clear advantage of the scanned page format is that the odd pagination of the flowing text format disappears and every screen page is numbered in the correct sequence.  Still, even in this format, the book remains at 212 pages long and, despite Google’s claim, it is very clear that it was not scanned from “original” pages.  Not only is the pagination different from any printed edition, but the illustrations in printed copies and the ebook version of Austerlitz are in different locations.  And then there is the footnote that Sebald uses in the early pages of Austerlitz.  (The note can be seen spread across the bottom of pages 10-11 of the American editions by Random House and Modern Library).   The narrator of Austerlitz uses an asterisk to direct readers downward to a comment purportedly added at a later date regarding a trip to Switzerland.  In the Google ebook version, this is treated as a real footnote and is placed on the third to last page (210) as the book’s sole “endnote.”

Admittedly these are minor, if annoying issues in and of themselves.  However, they suggest that this ebook was reassembled from multiple digital files in a way that should make us wonder about the integrity of ebook texts.  My wild guess is the Austerlitz ebook was put together from a digital text file, another file or set of files representing the various images, and an endnotes file.  (For example, illustrations can be seen loading into reserved “empty” spaces after the entire text of the page loads.)  In the case of Austerlitz, this had led to some deviations that are easy to spot.  But could there also be larger problems that are not so easy to spot?  Could paragraphs or images go missing?  Who would know?  Did Google create this ebook or did Random House?  Who takes responsibility for the integrity of ebooks?

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. First author I searched for on the eBookstore. Was disappointed not to see RoS on there, but that probably comes down to a matter of publisher (New Directions vs. Random House) more than anything else. Thorough writeup, in any case. Catches all the quirks and benefits and drawbacks that I also spotted in the app.

    December 8, 2010
  2. The mysterious pagination isn’t all that mysterious. The printed (scanned) book has page numbers that “stay where you put them” while the free-flowing text, flows freely based on resolution, screen size and so on. When you’re in free-flow mode, you might be seeing the equivalent of 2 or 3 or 4 printed (scanned) pages.

    This is actually a big improvement–allows you to follow a pre-ebook citation to a particular page (impossible with a Kindle or other e-format).

    December 9, 2010
    • W.G., I’m not convinced it’s that easy. A simple page to page comparison between my iPhone version of Austerlitz and the scanned page format version on my computer shows the two devices don’t track pages in the same manner. On my phone, the text on the single page labeled “6-10” is a complete subset of the text on page 5 on my computer. When I turn to the very next page on my phone, which is now labeled “10”, it corresponds to portions of text on of pages 5-6 on my computer. What I’d really love to see is that all versions would have the same pagination with page breaks indicated by subtle visual cues like a gray dotted line.

      December 9, 2010
  3. Joel Lipset #

    This is excellent news. I’ve wondered why I could not find digitalized Sebald books. I would love to see The Emigrants offered.
    Il get the reader asap. Thank you, Joel

    December 9, 2010

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  1. Some Problems with Google ebooks « (Mis)readings

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