I was looking for an electronic text of Balzac's great novel Les Illusions Perdues (1843) to send to a French-educated American friend. It soon became apparent that, while the most cursory of Google searches will produce three separate English translations (thank you Project Gutenberg and the University of Virginia) as well as versions in Italian and Russian, none was to be found in the original language. Further investigation failed to produce major French classics such as the plays of Molière, Racine, and Corneille (the 17th-century trio who collectively occupy in French letters a place roughly equivalent to Shakespeare's) except for a couple of plays on a provincial teacher's homepage and an archive in Quebec. It began to look as if French culture wasn't so terribly radiant after all.
As it happens, the Bibliothèque Nationale, French equivalent of the Library of Congress, now housed in a tall glass building on the Seine, was tasked by former president Chirac not long ago to provide an answer to Google Books's infernal gall. ("A commercial, American company, digitizing all books in existence? Even the French?" Chirac thundered, and promptly assigned a committee to counter this outrage.) Before that, Gallica, the website of the Bibliothèque Nationale, mostly held facsimile copies of books, exactly reproducing the original pages, typeface, and so on, which were hugely unwieldy (10 to 80 megabytes) and unsearchable. But surely, I thought, by now Gallica would have Les Illusions Perdues.
After half an hour getting lost on Gallica's new site, I called the library's press office. A polite young man named Jean-Noël Orengo explained to me that digitizing books cannot be done "just like that," "on a massive scale," "helter-skelter" (oh the horrors perpetrated by Project Gutenberg's tens of thousands of cheerful volunteers who have entered over 40,000 titles into its free online collection!); it must be done "correctly." (Thus did the zealots of the Counter Reformation battle those Bible-obsessed militants raring to let just anyone read Scripture. It's not for nothing that France was, for a very long time, a Catholic country.) Monsieur Orengo said I should write to the communications director of the Bibliothèque Nationale if I wanted to find out more.
"But surely," I countered, "you can guide me through the website? I'm in front of a screen. You're in front of a screen. Can't we just find one book together?"
"I'm not an Internet specialist," admitted M. Orengo, getting more flustered by the minute. "But surely," I repeated, having fruitlessly waded through lists of electronic works ranked by date of digitization, "the point of a website is that it can be used by everybody?"
This was obviously a new and surprising notion to my guide. It turned out that we couldn't find "my" Balzac, however hard we tried. I suggested we open another window to Google, and type the first sentence of the book, in quotation marks. No dice. I tried the opening sentence of one literary work that does exist on the Gallica website in electronic form, Molière's sublime Tartuffe. ("Allons, Flipote, allons, que d'eux je me délivre.") Google doesn't link to it. "Ah," said M. Orengo, in the tone of someone revealing an important and necessary truth, "but all web search engines are Anglo-Saxon."
Thursday, June 05, 2008
Anne-Elizabeth Moutet in the June 9th Weekly Standard: