Getting personal with Google Book Search

Tuesday, February 20, 2007 at 3:01 PM

It’s safe to say that we write about ourselves a fair amount on this blog. We don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but for this post, we’re going to catch some other writers in the act of writing about themselves. Strange but true: before blogs, people used writing implements such as pen and paper to record their thoughts. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some of the evidence.

One of the founding works of this genre is certainly St. Augustine’s Confessions. It’s estimated that this book was written around 400 AD, making it one of the first autobiographies ever. For a different brand of confession, you can have a look at Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater.

Both of these books are interesting reads, but personally, my favorite sort of autobiographical writing is the journal. If you’re nostalgic for the American Revolution, have a gander at the diary of George Washington, or if you’re feeling particularly old school, why not spring for Christopher Columbus’ journal? You can download both of these books if you'd like to catch up on the lives of these figures on the go.

If history’s not to your liking, you can browse Henry David Thoreau’s journal Autumn, which is dominated by the experience of nature. Or explore the minds of two of twentieth-century Europe’s most acclaimed authors, Bertolt Brecht and André Gide, each of whom journaled extensively. There are four volumes to Gide’s journals, all of which are on Google Book Search, and the volume of Brecht’s writings spans 20 years.

Some of these authors had a heightened awareness of their audience — both confessional works, in particular, weren’t written for the benefit of the authors themselves but rather for the reader. Now that all of these books are part of Google Book Search, they’re open to everything from scholarly searches to the most inane of queries. You can discover the most revelatory minutiae of towering figures of literature and history just as easily as you can call up the most useless facts about their lives. Out of all the works I’ve listed here, guess who writes most frequently about their breakfast? Trust me, it’s not even close: George Washington.

Update: George Washington's journal is not currently available as a PDF download. We're working to include this option on all public domain works.


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