A Search Engine That Finds You Weird Old Books

Clive Thompson on 2022-01-20

To help ‘rewild your attention’ I built a book-finding app

The Gentleman’s Magazine Of Fashion, Feb. 1870

(tl;dr — if you want to skip this essay and just try out my search tool, it’s here.)

Last fall, I wrote about the concept of “rewilding your attention” — why it’s good to step away from the algorithmic feeds of big social media and find stranger stuff in nooks of the Internet.

I followed it up with a post about “9 Ways to Rewild Your Attention” — various strategies I’d developed to hunt down unexpected material.

One of those strategies? “Reading super-old books online.”

As I noted, I often find it fun to poke around in books from the 1800s and 1700s, using Google Books or Archive.org…

Any book published in the U.S. before 1925 is in the public domain, so you can do amazingly fun book-browsing online. I’ll go to Archive.org or Google Books and pump in a search phrase, then see what comes up. (In Google Books, sort the results by date — pick a range that ends in 1924 — and by “full view,” and you’ll get public-domain books that are free to read entirely.)

I cannot recommend this more highly. The amount of fascinating stuff you can encounter in old books and magazines is delightful.

I still do this! Old books are socially and culturally fascinating; they give you a glimpse into how much society has changed, and also what’s remained the same. The writing styles can be delightfully archaic, but also sometimes amazingly fresh. Nonfiction writers from 1780 can be colloquial and funny as hell.

And man, they wrote about everything. Back in those centuries they wrote books about falling in love via telegraph wires, and about long-distance balloon travel. They wrote books that soberly praised eugenics, and ones that inveighed against it. They published exuberant magazines of men’s fashion and books on how to adopt vegetarian diets. The past being the past, there’s a ton of flat-out nativism, racism, and gibbering misogyny — but also people fighting against that, too.

It’s rarely dull.

Still, sifting through old books can be a hassle. You have to go to those search sites and filter for the right vintage (and public domain status). It’s a pain.

So: I decided to partly automate this — by making my own search tool.

Behold the Weird Old Book Finder.

Behold my Weird Old Book Finder

When I first starting crafting this, I had two design specs:

1) Immediate access

I wanted a tool that would only find you books in the public domain.

That way you could begin flipping through the whole book immediately. No “snippet view.” Got a five-minute break from work? In a few seconds you can be peering at a nutty old book. I wanted instant gratification. So that meant sticking to books published before Jan. 1, 1927.

2) Only one result

This search tool would return only one book at a time.

Why? I wanted to avoid the paradox of choice, where we get frozen when we’re confronted with too many options.

I spent the last two days hacking it together, and you can see a screenshot above. It’s hosted on Glitch if you want to go try it out.

Behind the scenes, here’s what it’s doing, which is pretty simple: i) You type in a query, and ii) my app sends it to Google Books, and filters the results for pre-1927 public domain. Then iii) it picks one at random and displays it to you.

Now, relying on Google Books is not a great way to build a tool like this. For starters, the Google Books API only returns a maximum of 40 books, and sometimes your search query will only match maybe ten or nine books. So if you repeat a query a few times, you’ll likely see the same books crop up.

But overall, it does what I wanted it to. I can open it up, throw in a search term, and within seconds be flipping through a weird old book.

How to get fun results

A few hints for doing searches that get interesting results…

(Oh, as for privacy? This app doesn’t store any queries you make. I have no idea what Google does with the queries it receives from the Glitch server. But as for the server code I’m running, it stores nothing. You can see my code on Glitch here, and remix it yourself if you want. It’s a gnarly mess, as per the 1X coder standards here at Clive Thompson World Enterprises, but hey! It works.)

Give it a whirl — and if you find anything particularly intriguing, post it to Twitter and tag me there, I’m “@pomeranian99”.

Here are some examples of books I stumbled upon using this tool, just this afternoon.

I searched for “fashion” and got this gem…

…the February 1870 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine Of Fashion. In addition to utterly fabulous illustrations, it offers up-to-the-minute advice on what trends were hot back then (“Trowsers for Evening wear, are still made moderately close-fitting. For Morning they are somewhat wider”).

I searched for “fruit”…

…and found this 1911 issue of The Monthly Bulletin of the State Commission of Horticulture, detailing all the pests that farmers were dealing with back then. The illustrations are fab, and in our current climate-change period where invasive species are wreaking havoc with agriculture, it’s intriguing to see what they were dealing with back then.

I did a search for “magic” and found this…

the 1905 children’s book A Magician for One Day. This one reminds me of how sheerly gorgeous book design could be back in the 19th century! Look at those illustrations, and the colored drop-caps! Man alive.

I searched for “avarice” and found this fascinating tome…

…the 1868 collection of Ballads on the condition of England in Henry VIII’s and Edward VI’s reigns, (including the state of the clergy, monks and friars). It includes some poems describing the plight of the poor — and how they’re serially screwed-over by the rich. This poem is over 400 years old (as per this estimate by Andrea L) but reads like it came straight out of Occupy Wall Street: a rapacious 1% with zero compassion for working stiffs.

(“A Rich man without wisdom / A wise man without discretion / A fool natural for his promotion”? I mean, damn. That’s literally ripped from today’s headlines.)

Also, I looked for “capitulation” (hey, why not?) and found this…

…from the 1904 book The Colonel’s Capitulation, a short little romance novel about a military dude falling in love. Again, the illustrations are just 🔥. There are about a dozen of them in this short novella.

A search for “machinery” found this…

a 1836 book about how automation and machinery was wrecking the livelihood of weavers and other artisans.

So, basically, it’s the early 19th century version of our AI/robots-taking-your-job debate of today!

This was written not long after the British government quashed the Luddite rebellion with hundreds of soldiers and dozens of hangings.

Meanwhile, I tried looking for “scary clowns” and got nothing. Not sure why. Didn’t they have scary clowns in the past? They totally had scary clowns.

So I pivoted instead to the search phrase “unsettling clowns” and found this…

…an image from Vol. 35 of St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks, a 1908 children’s magazine with some truly gorgeous illustrations (seriously, check it out), as well as a section on clowning with the suitably unsettling photo above.

One last search I did, just now, was for “politics women”. It found this book…

…Henry Ward Beecher’s 1860 speech on Woman’s Influence in Politics, in which he writes…

That vulgar Maxim, worn smooth in fools’ mouths, that a woman ought to stay at home and take care of her husband’s clothes and her children’s food, is a switch cut from that great tree of Arrogance under which despotic men have always sat, from which the strong have always cut their bludgeons and cudgels with which to strike down or chastise the weak.

Pretty metal.

Anyway, give the Weird Old Book Finder a try and let me know what you locate!

Clive Thompson publishes on Medium three times a week; follow him here to get each post in your email — and if you’re not a Medium member, you can join here and some of your fees each month will support Clive’s writing!

Clive’s a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Wired and Smithsonian magazines, and a regular contributor to Mother Jones. He’s the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, and Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better. He’s @pomeranian99 on Twitter and Instagram.