So it’s been a little more than six months since the “historic” Google Books settlement, and there’s even more controversy lately than ever. (Hard to believe the Authors Guild screwed something up, I know.) Aside from antitrust issues, Google Books is still a frustratingly long way from fulfilling its potential.
The same goes for magazines in the Books database. Google has some interesting ideas about magazines in the pipe, but in the meantime, finding magazines is an aggravating experience at best. There’s no way to browse the archives, which means there’s no way to discover magazines you haven’t heard of. Instead you have to search, often fruitlessly, to find out if the database carries particular titles.
The selection is varied. New York, Popular Science, Cincinnati, Baseball Digest; essentially a lot of middle- to lower-tier archives. And the selection of truly bizarre magazines is sparse: for instance Log Home Design Ideas (which somehow went from quarterly to monthly in its ten-year run).
But there is a saving grace for the current state of Google Books magazine archives at Google Books, provided by Bat Boy, robotic Dick Cheney, and all manner of other freaks, geeks, and weirdos.
For my money, Weekly World News is easily one of the top five most consistent sources of comedy in the world. They go to the Bigfoot/Alien/Bat Boy well a little too often, but how can you go wrong with headlines like these:
“Time-Travel Dog From Future Held Captive”
“Moon to Explode In 6 Months”
“Mermaid Cemetery Discovered!”
“Gay Corpses Found In Titanic Life Ring!”
The stories are surprisingly creative and often feature great taglines and quotes, way too many exclamation points, a raft of anonymous sources, and Photoshop work that rivals The Onion‘s. They’ve got an oddly postmodern section titled “Weekly World News Humor,” and even their Wikipedia entry is funny (it might be “confusing or unclear to readers”).
Google Books has 26 years of WWN goodness, from 1981 all the way through the end of the print run in 2007. The great part about reading magazines on Google is that once you find a title, the interface is terrific. You can scan thumbnail covers of issues by decade, and watch the evolution of WWN design.
The biggest upside of this archive is that it visually lays out the history of a magazine in a way that hasn’t been possible before. I used this feature to pinpoint the inception of WWN’s greatest slogan, “The World’s Only Reliable Newspaper” (born May 2, 2005), but it clearly has more practical applications.
On the flip side, there’s also an odd assortment of questionably useful bonus features, like the “Key terms” (for the 1-8-07 issue, they included “pheromones,” “Trans fat,” “canopic jar,” and “sock monkey”), and the crossreferenced map of places mentioned in a given issue. You can search within individual issues of magazines but not across issues in a single title’s archives.
Sometimes it seems like Google has more information than they know what to do with, and they don’t bother to figure out what’s useful, or how to filter out the rest. Like a lot of Google, the book search is great for finding answers if you ask the right questions, but not so good for discovering things you didn’t know you were looking for.
In any case, you can follow the continuing chronicles of WWN here. They’ve made some changes since the print version dried up; they cut the “paper” out of their slogan and are now “The World’s Only Reliable News.” They also seem to be basing more stories on real news in what might well be a long-form postmodern masterpiece of contemporary fiction. You can now read about Jon from “Jon and Kate Plus 8″ having an affair… with 8 circus workers, or Shanna Moakler resigning from Miss USA… to found Miss Nerd USA.
Whatever they’re trying to do, WWN is still a great waste of an hour, or a day.