There’s some kind of irony in the fact that I bought my e-reader device (an iPad) mostly to read free books, but there it is. I mentioned in a previous post, that the e-reader has expanded the range of authors that I’ve read; this is partially because I can find things that I might not stumble upon in a library, or a bookstore. It’s also because there is a feeling of low commitment with an etext, particularly a free one. No time limit as with a library book; no issues about taking up precious shelf space. Once I have it, I can read it, or not. This leads me to pick up etexts that I might not pick up physically — often to my benefit.
But where to go for all this classic, public-domain (and most importantly: free!) reading? I’m sure you all have your favorite sites; these are mine. Not all of these site provide ebooks, as such; some of them provide pdfs, and others only html. All of them are interesting. The list, it goes without saying, is slanted towards my own tastes.
Here we go:
Project Gutenberg: The granddaddy of public domain etext archives. These are mostly books with expired copyright that have been scanned and proofed by volunteers, usually from a mix of editions. This means that the texts are not guaranteed to correspond with any specific edition or printing of the book in question. They are, however, very high quality transcriptions.
There are a few books of more recent vintage, such as the works of H. Beam Piper, where the author or the author’s heirs have voluntarily contributed the book to Gutenberg (I assume the author’s estate still holds the copyright).
The main downside of the Project Gutenberg site is that it’s not browse-friendly. I go there when I have a specific book in mind, but I rarely pick up anything else, as I might do when finding a physical book on a library or bookstore shelf, or even when I’m on Amazon.
Formats: plain text, html, pdf, epub, kindle, plucker, QiOO
Feedbooks (public domain): Largely the same collection as Project Gutenberg; the ebooks are slightly prettified (e.g. they have covers). The site has bookstore-style commentary about each of the books, plus reviews: features Gutenberg’s site lacks. It’s a little more browse-friendly. Feedbooks also sells ebooks, in Adobe-DRM epub format (the public domain texts are DRM-free).
Formats: epub, pdf, kindle
Internet Archive Text Archive: Fiction, children’s books, historical texts, academic books, even some ephemera (they have back-issues of Amazing Stories, for example). A far more extensive collection than Project Gutenberg, but the scans are not nearly as high-quality. For books with intricate typesetting or extensive footnotes, the epub and plain text versions can be unreadable. It’s best to go with their online reading interface, or download the pdf.
On the downside, the online interface (like most online reading interfaces) is clunky and slow, and the pdfs are quite large, since they are image scans; they can also be quite slow. Still, this is a good place to look for obscure texts that even Gutenberg editors haven’t gotten around to scanning. I like to use it to find old book images for blog posts.
Check out the Internet Archive video collection, too.
Formats: Online (OpenLibrary interface), pdf, epub, kindle, daisy, plain text, DjVu
ManyBooks.net: Primarily from the Project Gutenberg and Project Gutenberg of Australia archives, as well as other public domain and Creative Commons collections. As with Feedbooks, the ebooks are prettified, and they’ve been converted to a large number of formats. The page for each book features a brief excerpt, some meta-data, and reviews. A nice site.
Formats: epub, pdb, kindle, pdf, plain text, html, rtf, mobi, Sony Reader, and more. Not all the books may be in all formats.
Bartleby.com : “The preeminent Internet publisher of literature, reference and verse providing students, researchers and the intellectually curious with unlimited access to books and information on the web, free of charge.”
A very cool site, perfect for quick research and looking up poetry. They also have searchable interfaces to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, The King James Bible, and the 1918 editions of Gray’s Anatomy and The Elements of Style (Strunk without White). Nicely formatted html, with line numbers. They also sell print versions of the books on their site, through Amazon.
Formats: html. Limited pdf selection, from The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction.
Story of the Week: Terrific site by the Library of America, a non-profit publishing house dedicated to keeping affordable editions of important American authors and texts in print. One text a week, sometimes short stories, sometimes essays, selected from one of the Library of America anthologies. You can subscribe by RSS, or by email. Each text is accompanied by historical commentary, links to other Story of the Week works by the same author or on the same theme, and links to buy print, and sometimes ebook, versions of the LOA volume from which the text is drawn.
Not all of these texts are in the public domain.
Formats: Online reader, pdf
The Best Philippine Short Stories: [Update, 8 July, 2012] I just discovered this site, thanks to Nancy Cudis at Simple Clockwork. It’s an online magazine, featuring Filipino literature (short stories, poems, essays, art, cartoons) both old and new, some previously published, some exclusive to the magazine. If you are a writer who lives in the Philippines, are ethnically Filipino, or simply write about Filipino characters, this might be a good place to submit to. The texts are well-formatted html (narrow blog post style), with illustrations. I’m looking forward to checking this one out more!
Again, not all the texts will be public domain. I imagine most of them aren’t.
Ghost Stories at Ghost Cities: Anil Balan writes (among other things) supernatural tales based in Oxford and Cambridge. He also has a nice blog, rather on a similar theme to this one, only, you know, more regularly updated. Every so often, he’ll post a discussion of a classic ghost story, along with the text of the ghost story itself. This is the collection of texts that he’s written about.
Check out his blog, too.
The Literary Gothic: A guide to ghost stories, gothic fiction, and supernaturalist fiction prior to 1950. The site provides thumbnail biographies of gothic authors, links to online critical and biographical information, and pointers to online texts. Be warned: a lot of dead links here. In particular, most of the etext links go to Horrormasters.com, which is gone.
Gaslight: I don’t think Gaslight is still active, but at least it’s still up. Stories of mystery, adventure, and The Weird from between 1800 and 1919.
The Horrors of It All: A bit different from the links above. A blog featuring high quality scans of stories from pre-code horror comics: Charlton, Atlas, basically everyone except EC. At least, I don’t remember ever seeing any EC on the site. As you might expect, a lot of this is pretty awful, but a lot of it is fun and wonderful, too. There’s one large scan per page of the story (5-8 pages, usually), so this is better read on a computer than on any mobile device.
The regular readers tend to be quite knowledgeable about comic artists and writers of the period, so the comments section is a fun read as well.
That’s my list! What are your favorite online sites for good free reading?