Moby Dick, a book about computers

I’m just slightly torn about this expose of machine-miscategorizations in many titles on Google Books. On the one hand, of course the errors ought to be fixed, and the folks at Google are certainly on the case. Honestly, though, I find the pattern of mistakes to be not just charming, but possibility-expanding: miscategorizing Jane Eyre in “Architecture” or “Antiques & Collectibles” offers up a bit of the bookstore-browsing serendipity that we were worried would be lost once the direct-search online catalog took over. If nothing else the mistakes have got me pondering: what sort of book about web browsers would Sigmund Freud have written?

Then there are the classification errors. William Dwight Whitney’s 1891 Century Dictionary is classified as “Family & Relationships,” along with Mencken’s The American Language. A French edition of Hamlet and a Japanese edition of Madame Bovary both classified as “Antiques & Collectibles.” An edition of Moby Dick is classed under “Computers”: a biography of Mae West classified as “Religion”; The Cat Lover’s Book of Fascinating Facts falls under “Technology & Engineering.” A 1975 reprint of a classic topology text is “Didactic Poetry”; the medievalist journal Speculum is classified “Health & Fitness.”

from “Google Books: A Metadata Train Wreck,” by Geoff Nunberg, Language Log, 29 August 2009

Originally published at

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