By Harry McCracken | Sunday, February 20, 2011 at 1:17 pm
In a shocking instance of dereliction of duty, I’ve failed until now to mention the best tech-related news of 2011 (so far): Last week, Google added Spy magazine–“The New York Monthly”–to the ever-growing collection of magazines available for free in Google Books. (According to Spy co-founder Kurt Andersen, half the issues are up now and the rest are on their way.)
When Spy debuted in 1986, its quirky, snarky, endlessly inventive sensibility was unique. It soon influenced just about every other magazine on the planet, and you can still spot traces of its attitude everywhere. In fact, the entire blogosphere has a Spy-like feel, including reams of stuff written by people who have never read the magazine and might not even be aware of its existence.
Spy made an indelible impression on me: In fact, browsing through Google’s archive, I immediately identified the first issue–October 1987–which I ever encountered, and remembered perusing it at my desk during lunch.
If you just go to Google Books and click through to the Spy section, you’ll start with I think is the last issue published, the March 1998 edition. It may make you sad–it features John F. Kennedy Jr., the year before his passing. (It also taunts him for the “stumbles” of his George magazine, which ended up outliving Spy by several years.) Besides, Spy‘s best years were its early ones. So go here and sample from the first issues, whether you read them at the time or have never experienced Spy.
Up until now, most of the major magazine additions to Google Books have involved still-extant publications (such as Popular Science and Popular Mechanics) or defunct ones (such as Life) from companies that are still around. It’s good to know that significant magazines may make their way onto Google Books even if their publishers aren’t here to grant permission and help out.
As I’ve said before, I love Google Books so much that I feel guilty bringing this up–but it’s still not a terribly satisfactory way to read magazines. If you don’t know that Spy‘s there, you might not find it: As far as I can tell, there’s no way to search for magazines by name. I also see no way to search a specific title, then sort the results in chronological order. The digitization of SPY is also tad sloppy–a half-dozen later issues apparently don’t have month/year data associated with them, so they appear before the first issue. Basically, it still feels like a book site that’s been slightly rejiggered for magazines.
You might be waiting for Honeycomb or Google Music or some other Google product we know is on its way. Me, I’m dying for Google Magazines–a site devoted entirely to capturing as much of the world’s magazines as possible and making it at least as easy to read them online as it was in dead-tree form. I have no evidence that such a site is in the works. But we’re talking Google here, so it would be startling if it didn’t show up sooner or later….