Project Gutenberg!

Few things have transformed society as much as the moveable-type printing press. By dramatically reducing the cost of reproducing the written word, the press sent shock waves through our civilization. Not long after there was Cervantes, and the novel was born.

Now we have the Internet, enabling new literary forms (and, even more illiterary forms). And, thanks to the folks at Project Gutenberg, not only can we waste our lives searching for the rare gems in the raucous jungles of the blogosphere, we can peruse the classics that got us here. Their goal is pretty straightforward — archive all books that are in public domain and make them available to anyyone with the technology to access them.

I had read about this project, but hadn’t taken the time to drop by until I was doing a search for Ring Lardner, a humorist who is mentioned in The Catcher in the Rye. I downloaded and read The Real Dope, which was, indeed, quite funny.

Then I looked at the “Most popular downloads” page and the biggest movers were textbooks. The most popular authors, with more than a thousand downloads per day, were Mark Twain and Jane Austen. My guess is that this would correspond to writers popular in literature curriculums. Also near the top was Sun Tsu’s Art of War, someone’s Illustrated History of Furniture, and Beowolf. “Beowolf,” thought I, “cool. I should read that.”

So I downloaded the book in a few seconds and after going through the translator’s notes from the 1880’s and a few newer notes about the current digital encoding and choice for what characters to use, I got to the poem. In Old English. Completely unreadable unless you happen to know Old English. I assume the thing’s a top download simply because it’s a top download. It’s hard to imagine that hundreds of people who know Old English and don’t happen to already have at least one copy of Beowolf in Old English are going to be happening by gutenberg.org each day.

Anyway, you can bet your boots I’ll be dropping by from time to time to brush up on the great classics of literature. For instance, right now I’m reading Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Borroughs.

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