Recently on Words About Books we decided to do an episode where we discuss some different ideas for reading material that may help pass the time during quarantine. We gave a few suggestions for ways to get free or cheap e-books, and some of our personal reading recommendations. In this post I’d like to expand on some of the things we talked about, starting with our sources for free books.
We recommended that readers check out Project Gutenberg and Open Library, but we didn’t have a chance to get into a lot of the interesting history of those projects. Project Gutenberg dates back to 1971 and the creation of the e-book itself. Micheal Hart found himself with access to extra computing time on the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the Materials Research Lab at the University of Illinois. It occurred to him that computers were not just powerful calculators, but had the capacity to store and quickly retrieve large quantities of information. Together with a few friends he decided to enter a copy of the Declaration of Independence into the computer, and to send it to everyone on the network. The results of that experiment were mixed, but Project Gutenberg and the e-book were born.
The Project Gutenberg Philosophy is to make information, books and other materials available to the general public in forms a vast majority of the computers, programs and people can easily read, use, quote, and search.
This has several ramifications:
1. The Project Gutenberg Etexts should cost so little that no one will really care how much they cost. They should be a general size that fits on the standard media of the time …
2. The Project Gutenberg Etexts should be so easily used that no one should ever have to care about how to use, read, quote and search them …
The Open Library project is different in a number of ways. Most notably, the Open Library allows users to check out books that are still protected under US copyright. Unlike Project Gutenberg, you are not able to download and “own” the e-book. Open Library is part of the larger Internet Archive effort. The mission of the Internet Archive is to build a library of internet sites and other cultural artifacts that exist in digital form. Many people are familiar with another Internet Archive project, the Wayback Machine that allows users to view websites and web content that has been removed or changed. Open Library has two missions:
- Create a digital lending library with as large a repository as possible
- Create a website for each book.
Open Library is an open source project in every sense of the term. From the code to the content it relies on it’s community to continue to build and maintain the archive. Both Open Library and Project Gutenberg have multiple ways you donate your time and/or money. If you are passionate about books and have either resource to spare, please consider volunteering.
Project Gutenberg Recommendations
Since Project Gutenberg deals primarily with books that were published before 1930, and I know that our listeners (and my co-host) are not always the biggest fans of the classics, I thought that I’d take this opportunity to recommend some books that are freely available on Project Gutenberg. I feel that all of these have stood the test of time, and are accessible to modern readers. Unfortunately, because this is me writing, you are going to see a disproportionate number of horror novels.
The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft. Poor Lovecraft, he didn’t even make the cover of this issue. The Dunwich Horror is a short story by H.P. Lovecraft originally published in the April 1929 issue of Weird Tales. It is one of the more memorable stories from the Cthulu mythos. The Whateley family has always been strange. The good people of Dunwich, Massachusetts have suspected old man Whateley of practicing dark rituals and witchcraft; knowledge that he passes to his grandson. The grandson ventures to Miskatonic University in the nearby town of Arkham to study their copy of the Necronomicon. Upon seeing just what the the young man is looking into, the librarian thinks that it might not be good idea to allow the young man access to the eldritch text. Can the young man be stopped? What dark secrets lurk within the Whateley farm?
The Shunned House by H.P. Lovecraft. Well, at least he got his name on this one. While not strictly part of the Cthulu mythos this is still a neat little story dealing with eldritch terrors beyond the comprehensions of man. It’s Lovecraft’s take on the classic “creepy abandoned mansion.” Dr. Whipple (I assume you pronounce the “H”) is fascinated with an old abandoned house in his neighborhood. He’s recorded all the strange misfortunes that have befallen those who tried to live in the house. Perhaps most strange of all are the yellow unidentifiable weeds and glowing fungi that appear on the property. Finally, Whipple decides he must investigate. What he finds in the basement he will never forget.
Dracula by Bram Stoker. If you’re even a casual fan of horror who has never read Dracula then I am ordering you to put this on your reading list. Dracula is one part legit gothic horror, and one part over-the-top Victorian soap opera. The first 70 pages or so of Dracula hold up as some truly creepy horror writing. There are numerous other scenes throughout the book that really bring the horror. I won’t deny that a large portion of the book is dedicated to a handful of dashing and heroic gentlemen fighting to save a fair maiden, but even that has a kind of charm to it. I can’t say much more without getting into spoilers, but if you think you can stomach the soap opera then I think you’re going to love this.
Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. This book holds up. You should read this book. I have no snarky comments for this one. This book probably merits the full podcast treatment. If you’re not familiar, Frankenstein is widely regarded not only as an excellent horror novel, but as one of the first true science-fiction novels. It is an exceedingly human story of one man’s hubris and cruelty coming back to bite him. No movie or adaptation has ever done it justice. You should read this book.
Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. I have read and own multiple copies of every Sherlock Holmes story that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. There are 4 Sherlock Holmes novels: A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear. They’re all good. My favorite is probably A Study in Scarlet, but where Arthur Conan Doyle really shines for me is in the Sherlock Holmes short stories. Some of my favorite that can be found in the collection I have linked to are: A Scandal in Bohemia, The Red-headed League, and The Five Orange Pips.
Edgar Allen Poe. Often considered one of the first great American authors, Poe probably doesn’t need much of an introduction from me. His horror is well known, and for good reason. During these trying times of Corona Virus, and governments’ marginally-competent leadership, and celebrities singing “Imagine” to you from their mansions…you may find The Masque of the Red Death especially cathartic (consider the Vincent Price adaptation, as well). I have also found that many people don’t know that Edgar Allen Poe also wrote a series of detective stories. To say that Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Poe’s Dupin would be to put it generously.
Le Mort d’Arthur by Thomas Malory. Horror may be my first passion, but ever since reading Lord of the Rings in middle school fantasy has been a close second. I love the Arthurian legends. If I had to recommend one set of Arthurian canon to new young adult/adult readers it would be Le Mort d’Arthur (with T.H. White’s The Once and Future King being a good choice for younger readers). The translation available on the Gutenberg Project is very approachable. Malory had intended to title his book something like “The Whole Book of King Arthur”, but after his death his publisher went with the spicier title. Click bait was a thing even back in 1485. The reason I mention this is because some people have the mistaken impression that this is only the story of Arthur’s final battle with Mordred. This is, in fact, a complete version of the Arthurian legend and a great place to start.
The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. Speaking of ancient myths of the Germanic people, a translation of Sturluson’s Prose Edda is available on the Gutenberg Project. There are two main sources for everything we know about Norse mythology: The Poetic Edda and The Prose Edda. The Poetic Edda is the primary source, having been composed several centuries before Snorri Sturlson lived. Sturluson’s Prose Edda is his attempt to gather all the stories and folklore of the Norse gods and heroes that he could. Though he wrote in the 13th century and therefore in a Christianized Europe, he was much closer to the original sources and his work is still heavily considered by scholars. As a bit of an aside, Jackson Crawford is an amazing source for information on everything Old Norse and his translation of the Poetic Edda is incredible. He does have a translation of the Prose Edda coming soon as well.
Podcast Show Notes
We gave a lot of recommendations and referenced several different websites on this episode. I wanted to briefly list some of those here for easy reference.
- Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
- Mindfulness in Plain English
- The First Law Trilogy
- The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of The Black Death, The Most Devastating Plague of All Time
- The Edenverse Anthology
Following are links to our recommended sources for cheap books, and books that are included with popular services:
We also gave a list of what we will be reading during our quarantines.
In all seriousness, we really do hope everyone is weathering this crisis comfortably and will come out on the other side unscathed. Books are one way that I am able to keep myself from looking at the news constantly, and descending into an anxious frenzy. I know that money is tight for a lot of families. I hope that these some of these resources come in handy. I’m fortunate enough to have a job that allows me to work from home, but as I write this Nate is out there working on the front lines. Never tell him I said this but I have a deep respect for him, and my sister, and my mom, and all the other people who are out there performing essential jobs. If you’re able to, relax with a couple of good books and hopefully we’ll all get through this.