A friend of mine has recently taken to reading Moby Dick on her phone, using the Kindle for Android app. Although I like to make fun of her for reading such a formidable book on a tiny screen, she is adamant that her method is much less intimidating, because she doesn’t have to 1) lug the book around, or 2) face its visible girth, taunting her daily with unread pages. No matter your feelings on print v. electronic books, the classics, as well as the not-so-classics, are on the Web and ready to download to your computer and portable e-reading device for free.
1923 is the red-letter year for establishing books as out-of-copyright and in the public domain in the United States. While there are books published after 1923 whose copyright has expired, your best bet for finding a free ebook is to look for older volumes. (And for those of you interested in why copyright lasts as long as it does, Duke University Law School’s Center for the Study of Public Domain discusses this quite well.)
But where, oh where, to find Melville for free? Maybe you’ve noticed the free ebooks at online booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble who sell (or in this case, give away) in formats specific to their gadgets (the Kindle, the Nook). However, the easiest places to find massive amounts of downloadable free ebooks - many of them obscure - is at Google Books, Project Gutenberg, or (my personal favorite) the Internet Archive.
At Google Books, use the advanced search option and select the “full view only” radio button to retrieve fulltext ebooks. If the books are in the public domain, you can download them in .pdf and oftentimes .epub formats (the ebook standard) for your e-readers, as well as download them using the Google ebooks app for your Android or iPhone/iPad. You can also search the New York Public Library catalog for books from our collection digitized as part of the Google Books Project.
Project Gutenberg is the oldest digital library - founded in 1971(!) by Michael Hart, who basically invented the ebook. This site contains over 30 thousand titles, downloadable in multiple formats, including .epub and .amz for Kindle. Project Gutenberg also offers free audio versions of its texts, computer-generated and human-read.
The Internet Archive holds over 2.6 million ebooks and texts (as well as archives for audio, live music, moving images, and the Internet itself). Not only does it contain a gigantic collection of public domain books, it also offers an impressive choice of formats, a well-designed web reader for when you want an immediate peek at the book, and great metadata. The records include extensive publication information and notes, as well as provenance (i.e. where the book came from). Here you can see a list of all books from the New York Public Library. We have our fingers in many pies!
What if public domain books are all fine and good, but you just want to read the latest literary sensation or self-help book or financial guide? The New York Public Library offers a good and growing selection of downloadable ebooks for loan on our website - all you need is a library card to download them. And if you’re flummoxed by the world of gadgets, software, formats, and digital rights management that makes ebooks possible, I will be teaching a free class at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on January 25 @ 3:15 on how to navigate this relatively new realm. Come on by and download with confidence, and bring your laptop to get started immediately.
And happy reading - no matter what format you're into! (I am currently reading (i.e. lugging around) Adam Levin’s 1030-page novel The Instructions, a hilarious, maximalist epic, but I'm beginning to think I should have bitten the bullet and bought it electronically - especially now that I know it won’t be saving me from real bullets any time soon.)