When I first discovered the Internet back in 1992, one of the first areas I gravitated to was Project Gutenberg, an electronic depository of some of the most important books in the history of literature. I didn’t actually read much from its library at first—this was back before Netscape, even, so basically all I could do was download the texts to my hard drive and then either sit at my desk or print out these huge documents—but I was thrilled to know that something like Project Gutenberg existed, that these books were there if I, or anybody else, wanted them. And then, a few years later, when I got a PDA, I did start downloading stories I’d always wanted to read, like G.K. Chesteron’s “The Man Who Was Thursday“, now that it was so easy to read an e-book wherever I might be.
The literary pleasure and convenience I enjoyed was due to the lifelong efforts of Michael S. Hart, who put Project Gutenberg’s first e-book, a copy of the Declaration of Independence he’d typed in by hand, online back in 1971, when there were barely more than a dozen computer nodes hooked up to… well, they weren’t even calling it the Internet back then, that’s how long ago it was. (According to the New York Times, Hart’s first plan was to send a copy to everybody in the network, but he was persuaded to simply make it available for download when somebody pointed out that much email traffic would result in a system crash.) When Hart died on September 6, Project Gutenberg’s library had grown to more than 36,000 different texts, available in a variety of formats. You can still download the plain text files, or you can read the books through a web browser, or you can access PDF, EPUB, or MOBI files to read on your handheld device or digital reader. (These days, I download EPUBs, then transfer them to my Sony Pocket.)
The rules are simple: If a book is in the public domain, and somebody is willing to type it up or scan the pages, it can be in the library; every week sees about 50 new books added to the collection. The implications of this open approach are enormous. As Hart’s friend, Dr. Gregory Newby, wrote in a tribute on the Project Gutenberg site shortly after Hart’s death, “eBooks are an efficient and effective way of unlimited free distribution of literature. Access to eBooks can thus provide opportunity for increased literacy. Literacy, and the ideas contained in literature, creates opportunity.” The more books Project Gutenberg makes available, the greater the range of ideas and forms of creative expression readers are exposed to, ideally creating even more opportunities for inspiration—after all, who knows what book might be the one to jumpstart somebody’s love for history or literature?
So, yes, you’ll have no trouble finding Charles Dickens (whose available books have been downloaded nearly 48,000 times) or Mark Twain (just under 60,000) in Project Gutenberg’s database, but you’ll also find Gordon Stables, a late 19th-century author of adventure stories like In the Land of the Great Snow Bear, or Thomas Mitchell’s 1838 travelogue, Three Expeditions Into the Interior of Eastern Australia. There’s also plenty of books in non-English languages, so if you’d like to read Madame Bovary in French or take a crack at Wizard of Oz in Esperanto, they’re available free of charge. (Donations are always welcome though.)
Project Gutenberg has several competitors these days. Google Books has plenty of public domain books in its inventory, and both Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer free electronic editions of many literary classics. But there’s something to be said for a completely non-commercial resource, a digital library that makes books available not based on consumer demand but on the passion of readers who are convinced that somebody else will love a particular book as much as they do. “One of those things I like best about eBooks is giving them away,” Michael Hart said in 2009 “Not just giving them away, but how easy it is to give them away—and how many you can give away with such little effort.” He may have been underselling the effort that went into Project Gutenberg a bit, but the legacy that he created over the last 40 years by tapping into his own passion and that of others is truly inspirational.