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Friday, January 6, 2012

The joys of Gutenberg

Why this illustration? Read on.

One of the most pleasurable things for me to do on a daily basis is to go to my RSS feed for Project Gutenberg. It shows me the new additions to its vast resources that have become available for today.

Project Gutenberg is a wonderful organisation. It has been putting books free of copyright online for many years - at least 36,000 of them. Books, that is, not years....

  Before I go any further, let me clear one thing up here and now. I am, probably like you, a bibliophile. I love the books in my bookcases. They are my friends, some more than fifty years old. I love that they have different looks, formats, colours, and smells. I can tell you a book that comes from the subcontinent, Europe or North America just by its smell. I love different typefaces and fonts and the sheer feel of a book in my hands.

  Hand. Not hands. That's my problem, you see. Only one of my hands now works with the dexterity needed for reading a book, and manipulating a book in order to read it is very much a two-handed operation. Turning pages. Holding a fat paperback open. Reading in towards the too-narrow gutter between pages. It can't be done. And even worse, the font size is usually about six-point seraph and practically unreadable in poor light.

  So there's my problem, but I've adapted. Using Calibre or Kindle (free book-reading programs) on my computer, I can read anything, with my choice of how it looks on the page. That's often a damn sight better than the publishers of hard copy books trying to save money on the cost of paper. I can download practically any book on the market, or free of charge, if from somewhere like Gutenberg. I can do it on the cheapest Kindle reader on the market, and be able to hold it one-handed if necessary. It may be when I'm in bed, or when the ads are on TV.

  It works for me.

  But, as usual, I've made a long intro to what I really wanted to say, which was that there are some truly fascinating free books available. All the ones you said you were going to read but never did, and many on the Gutenberg site. You never know what's coming up.

  Take just the last two weeks' worth of new offerings, e.g. What a smorgasbord! There's something for everyone there, and some surprises. Novels, classics, scientific studies, political discourses, journals and reference books - in a variety of languages.

  The thing is, something that looks absolutely boring can turn out to be quite the opposite when you view it. Something as wonderful a piece of literature as Madame Bovary doesn't need any justification, but what about The Corner House Girls Snowbound by Grace Brooks Hill? Or And So They Were Married by Florence Morse Kingsley? Would you go for The Adventure of the Devil's Foot by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

  Or in other categories, Why Lincoln Laughed by Russell Herman Conwell or An essay on the American contribution and the democratic idea by Winston Churchill. Maybe Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 15, August, 1851. Eighteenth Century lectures on elocution by Thomas Sheridan turned out to be more intriguing than I expected.

  Given my lifetime study of Bengali culture, I was delighted to come across the folktales of Bengal, beautifully illustrated in colour, and couldn't resist looking at (from the days of the Raj, obviously) Tempting Curry Dishes by Thomas J. Murrey. The only trouble with it was that for each dish, a bottle of J. P. Smith's Curry Powder was an essential ingredient!

  I was shocked at the novelty of seeing three recent items that seem rather strange in the middle of the antiquarianism of other books available; a book on email, surfing the net and a novel on computer terrorism. It was like a timewarp. They didn't quite seem to belong there.

  There were a few that I'll leave to the enquiring minds of others. Although I don't doubt in the slightest their contribution to scholarship and learning, Calculus Made Easy by Silvanus P. Thompson, Geographic Variation in the North American Cyprinid Fish, Hybopsis gracilis by Cross and Olund, and Remarks on the practice and policy of lending Bodleian printed books and manuscripts by Chandler are titles I won't be downloading to the Kindle.

  Oh - nor will The Water-Works and Sewerage of Monterrey, N. L., Mexico be high on the list.

  Here's the selection of books mentioned above available from Gutenberg in the past two weeks. Flaubert is in French, but there is an English edition available.

Email 101 by John Goodwin
Language: English
Had Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier been read widely in modern times, I suspect Afghanistan would have been left alone (as it should have been, always!)


  1. Wonderful, (although Did Lincoln [ever] Laugh? was the volume I was looking for, but perhaps your one is in fiction) And another great thing about Gutenberg is that, if you have a mother who is the opposite of a horder, it is a delight to find Book for Kidz on there as well, years after your mother threw your own, solid copy away.

  2. And you can read Sax Roehmer's FuManchu Mysteries - gold
    Lovely piece of writing Denis

  3. Zoe - I didn't know about Book for Kidz but I've got to look now!

    As to Lincoln, I confess to not looking deeply into all these tomes, but the picture of Lincoln in my mind is one of unremitting intensity. This may be quite wrong and the story would dispute it; a sense of humour and intensity are far from mutually exclusive. For all I know he may have been the life and soul of every party!

    I do like the introductory bit telling the joke about the fisherman's scales weighing the baby and finding it to be 47 lbs. But even better is Mark Twain's comment recorded there about the problem with old men's memories was that they remember so many things 'that ain't so.'

    That's a sobering thought to me. I've had enough trouble with people disputing mine, and sad to say, they're probably not too far from the truth.

    G&G: thanks for your comment - now you know I'll find it irresistible to look up that series, which is a mixed blessing!

  4. Memories can always be gilded - they look so much nicer that way

  5. Wonderful! In my life of chaos, I didn't know about this treasure house.Thank you.


    1. Your books may well be in hard copy, but you will have eBooks made of them because they are now 60% of the book market. With loads of pictures!

      "Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice ‘without pictures or conversation?’"

  6. Denis, good that you should bring this to the notice of those of your blog followers who may be unaware of free ebooks. There are also other sites which can be accessed via Google ('free ebook download' etc as keywords) but Gutenberg is by far the best. We download directly to our eReaders, of different makes, and generally have 30-50 books on them. It means that when travelling, waiting, or just sitting around we can access the world's classic novels, biographies, histories, poetry ... the possibilities are endless. And we can load hundreds of books into a slim ereader that fits into a pocket or handbag. I also download other stuff on mine ... like the Rules of Pool, or some of my poetry, or reports like 'Islamic Feminism'. Ah, the wonders of technology exceed its frustrations.

    Sorry to hear you are going through a rough spell. Best wishes to you both.

    1. And your own books are on Kindle as well! Thanks, Bob. More on freeBooks in another posting or two....


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