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50 Excellent Free Books from Project Gutenberg (and How to Easily Read Them)
A few months ago, I briefly wrote about how to download and read free books from Project Gutenberg on your phone, tablet, or computer. For those unaware, Project Gutenberg is a collection of books in the public domain, made available for convenient reading on digital devices completely for free. Here’s what I wrote:
The Project Gutenberg website isn’t too bad to navigate once you know a few tricks (it’s vastly improved from some of the earlier versions). My preferred way to find and read classic books from there is to visit their mobile site, http://m.gutenberg.org/, which has a very nice mobile interface. I prefer it to the desktop one by a large margin unless you’re actually at a computer with a huge screen and, honestly, even then, I still use the mobile site and just make my browser window small.
When visiting the site on mobile, you actually have a lot of options. Let’s say you’re looking at the mobile page for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays. The easiest way to read immediately is to just click on the “HTML” link, which opens the book in your web browser and you can instantly start reading it by scrolling downwards. The full book is one giant HTML page.
A much better option, if you’re on your phone or a tablet, is to click on the “Kindle (with images)” link. If you have the free Amazon Kindle app on your phone or tablet already, you’ll be prompted with a link to open the book in the Kindle app. Do so and the book will be in your Kindle app, for free, ready to read.
This mailbag response generated a lot of feedback from several readers asking for reading suggestions. I’ll share Stan’s message as an example:
Loved loved loved your answer last week to the question about Project Gutenberg books! Always wanted to know how to do it! Followed your directions and downloaded Pride and Prejudice in seconds and started reading it in the Kindle app!
Do you have any recommendations from Project Gutenberg? Give me a big list of stuff to read from there!
Sure! Here are 50 great books that you can download from Project Gutenberg right now for free and immediately start reading! Every single one is linked right to their book’s page, along with a convenient mobile link if you’re looking at this on a tablet or a smartphone. These are all books that I love that come recommended by me personally.
Wuthering Heights (mobile) by Emily Brontë is the prototypical Gothic novel, centering on the lives of two young lovers, Heathcliff and Catherine. When Catherine chooses to marry another, Heathcliff plots and takes revenge on Catherine’s family and the family of her husband.
Pride and Prejudice (mobile) by Jane Austen focuses on Elizabeth Bennet, the oldest daughter of a 19th century English family who is facing considerable family pressure to marry. The book centers on her growth as a person as she is courted by Mr. Darcy, a rather aloof fellow whom she initially doesn’t like.
Jane Eyre (mobile) by Charlotte Brontë focuses on the titular orphaned girl, who struggles to get an education on her own at a harsh boarding and eventually winds up as a governess in a family with quite a few secrets.
Sense and Sensibility (mobile) by Jane Austen tells the story of the Dashwood sisters who live on a tiny cottage on the land of a wealthy relative due to some life misfortune. Most of the novel focuses on their character growth, particularly the younger one, and how they figure out love and their place in the world. The character growth of Marianne Dashwood is wonderfully told, both in terms of enjoyment of the book and in terms of giving the reader something to think about.
Great Expectations (mobile) by Charles Dickens is a coming-of-age novel about Pip, an orphan who opens the novel as a young boy but grows into adulthood throughout the story. This one has all of the great things about Dickens’ novels – memorable characters from all walks of life that grow and change throughout the novel, a great sense of humor, and some great food for thought about divisions in society snuck in there with the action and story.
Dracula (mobile) by Bram Stoker is perhaps the greatest novel of gothic horror, telling the classic story of Count Dracula, a vampire who has moved to Transylvania in order to spread his undead curse, and the group of villagers who fight against him, most notably Professor Abraham van Helsing. Almost everything one could expect to find in a great horror novel is right here.
Les Misérables (mobile) by Victor Hugo is a powerful novel describing a long cat-and-mouse game between suspected criminal Jean Valjean and Javert, the inspector pursuing him, with many side adventures and tales of people from all levels of society. The opposing characters of Valjean and Javert, particularly the growth in Valjean throughout the book, has made this a timeless tale enjoyed by millions of readers.
Persuasion (mobile) by Jane Austen tells the tale of a family who rents their home out to a couple, only to discover that the daughter of the family used to be engaged to the brother of the wife who is renting that house. Austen pretty much defines “romantic comedy,” and this is right in line with her other works, with this one standing out because of the relative maturity of the protagonist, which is in line with the relative maturity of Austen herself when she wrote the book.
Anna Karenina (mobile) by Leo Tolstoy focuses on an affair between the titular Anna Karenina and the rather wealthy Count Vronsky. The book twists and turns as it describes the ins and outs of their relationship and how Russian social standards and the Orthodox Church and the societies of other parts of Europe (especially Italy) reacted to their affair. The growth and change in the characters makes this a great read, especially with how the author deals with the title character as her life is in flux.
David Copperfield (mobile) by Charles Dickens covers the life of the title character from childhood to maturity through all kinds of ups and downs, and like any good novel by Dickens, the story is loaded with interesting and memorable characters, such as the morally dodgy financial secretary Uriah Heep and the comically eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood. Dickens’ magic is in his characters, and that’s on full display here.
The Woman in White (mobile) by Wilkie Collins is a truly fun crime/mystery novel with a really imaginative caper at the center of it, one which I don’t want to spoil for anyone who might read it. Suffice it to say that if you enjoy mystery/crime novels with unexpected twists and a few memorable characters, you’ll find a lot to like with this one.
The Brothers Karamazov (mobile) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky led me to think more deeply about faith, judgment, and human reasoning more than any novel I’ve ever read. The novel focuses on the tense relationship between a family patriarch and the interconnected lives of his four sons and the different moral and social paths that their lives each take. Dostoyevsky is brilliant at bringing out the moral ambiguity in people’s characters, where they have enormous blind spots regarding their own failings as people, and this novel is rife with that. The characters end up being incredibly rich because of it and you’ll be left thinking about this for the rest of your life.
The Time Machine (mobile) by H.G. Wells is a great science fiction novel about a man who travels 800,000 years into the future to discover that the upper class and the working class of humankind have become two distinct species, with completely different attributes and societies. Wells keeps the story moving along rather than dwelling too long on the implications of the societies, giving just a great little story and leaving you thinking and wanting more when you close the book.
Bleak House (mobile) by Charles Dickens is about an ongoing legal case regarding conflicting wills with different beneficiaries and the petty infighting and completely comical and ineffective and corrupt legal system in which the case is being tried. As always with a Dickens novel, the story rushes along and is filled with comical characters and people of all levels of society and character.
Crime and Punishment (mobile) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is the tale of a poor ex-student who plots to murder a rather sleazy pawnbroker and steal her money. The student dreams of the good things he could do with that money rather than the slimy things he perceives the pawnbroker as doing, but eventually his own conscience and the events of chance interfere with the planned crime. As with Dostoyevsky’s other works, this one thrives on morally ambiguous characters and situations that leave you thinking long after the cover is closed.
The Importance of Being Earnest (mobile) by Oscar Wilde is a comedy centered around a group of people who use pseudonyms and false identities to dodge their social obligations. As one can imagine, it’s thick with unexpected meetings and interactions and all kinds of awkwardness, wrapped up in a hilarious package.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (mobile) by Oscar Wilde has a much different tone than Earnest; here, a rather nasty individual named Dorian Gray manages to seemingly never age and keeps his youthful appearance, but this is due to the granting of a wish: his true appearance is kept locked in a painting, which ages horribly over time.
Moby-Dick (mobile) by Herman Melville is one of those books that everyone ought to read simply because of how often it shows up in popular culture in various ways. The core of the story – Ahab, captain of the Pequod, is obsessed with a great white whale that bit part of his leg off in a previous whaling trip – is well known, but the specifics draw you into a dark tale of obsession.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (mobile) by Jules Verne is a prime example of how wonderful late 19th century prototypical science fiction can be in the hands of someone who can write well with great imagination. Here, Verne imagines a rather advanced submarine, captained by an enigmatic fellow named Nemo who sails the seas for his own unclear reasons. The mix of the enigma of Nemo’s character with the wonderful descriptions of the submarine and its capabilities make this incredibly fun to read.
Heart of Darkness (mobile) by Joseph Conrad tells the tale of a man journeying up the Congo River to visit an enigmatic ivory trader who has apparently built up a rather dark cult of personality around himself. This is a dark book, but one that, if you pay attention, will make you think a lot about the world around you.
The Awakening (mobile) by Kate Chopin tells the story of Edna, a woman in Louisiana at the turn of the 20th century who is struggling to balance society’s view on women and their roles with the reality she is experiencing and observing in everyday life for herself and the women around her. Edna’s tale is harrowing and heartbreaking as she is constantly torn between what is expected of her and what she feels is the right thing to do.
The War of the Worlds (mobile) by H.G. Wells is a brilliant tale of an invasion from outer space by seemingly all-powerful aliens. This story is the baseline from which pretty much every hostile alien invasion story is sprung; it is a great work of imagination with Wells’ great descriptive talent at work.
The Scarlet Letter (mobile) by Nathaniel Hawthorne tells the tale of a forbidden romance between a woman and a pastor in a colonial American community, where the woman is shunned for her choices by the values of that community. The basic outline of the story is well known, but it is in the specifics and the characters of Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne that this really clicks.
The King in Yellow (mobile) by Robert W. Chambers is a truly classic collection of interrelated horror stories that all touch upon a play called The King in Yellow and some of the supernatural elements surrounding the performance of the play. This novel often ties into the work of H.P. Lovecraft, but I think Chambers’ writing exceeds Lovecraft’s.
The Sign of the Four (mobile) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one of the truly great Sherlock Holmes stories, along with the following one. As with most mysteries, it’s not really very fun to spoil the story or the outcome; suffice it to say, you’ll be glad that you read it if you enjoy mysteries.
A Study in Scarlet (mobile) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is probably my favorite of all of the Sherlock Holmes tales, as this one builds on the characters of Watson and Holmes so well within the telling of a well crafted detective story. Again, I don’t wish to spoil a good mystery!
Silas Marner (mobile) by George Eliot is one of my favorite novels ever written, but it’s surprisingly under appreciated today. The novel centers around a very down-on-his-luck linen weaver who seems to be the recipient of a series of very unfortunate events. I once tried to write a modernization of this, but found it beyond my abilities as a writer (though I still have my notes somewhere). Something about the title character’s experiences just really speaks to me.
The Idiot (mobile) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky focuses on the titular character, who is such an earnest and good man in a society filled with… questionable people that much of society interprets him as being unintelligent. Is it right to interpret earnestness and goodness as a failing? I don’t think so, but it’s a question that runs through this book. As always with Dostoyevsky, you’re left thinking about the rights and wrongs of human society.
A Tale of Two Cities (mobile) by Charles Dickens is probably his greatest novel. It tells the interconnected story of several families and individuals between the cities of London and France during the years leading up to the French Revolution and how their lives were tossed into tumult by those events. The characters are rich, as one expects from Dickens, but the backdrop of two societies going in somewhat different directions and how that affected the lives of ordinary people makes this one exceptional.
Middlemarch (mobile) by George Eliot tells the story of the interconnected lives of a number of people living in the fictitious English town of Middlemarch in the middle of the 19th century. The reasonably large cast of characters and how they interact and line up with one another gives a picture of a rich community that I wanted to stick with long after the novel was finished.
The Republic (mobile) by Plato is a discussion of the meaning of justice and how one could design a city or a state centered entirely around the concept of justice. What would that look like? Would it be a place worth living in?
Meditations (mobile) by Marcus Aurelius is a series of notebooks/diaries by the Roman emperor in which he reflects on how he mentally prepares himself to do the best job he can as emperor, which was quite good – Marcus Aurelius is widely considered one of the great Roman emperors. This is considered one of the landmark works of the philosophy of stoicism.
Utopia (mobile) by Thomas More describes an island society that has adopted a simple orderly life that seems like it would be very pleasant to be a part of, but would it work as a place to live in? Is it really a utopia? That’s really a question for the reader to decide.
Tao te Ching (mobile) by Lao-Tzu is a work that I was unsure whether to categorize as “religious” or “philosophical” as it really straddles the fence between the two (as do some items in the “religious” group, below). The book focuses on the idea of virtue and how to practice it in life in a very lyrical way that presents ideas, seemingly contradicts them, and then reconciles the contradictions.
On the Principles of Political Economy, and Taxation (mobile) by David Ricardo is an economics book that delves into the reasons behind a lot of simple economics that we take for granted, like why rent goes up in highly populated areas and how machinery and automation benefits everyone except for the people on the bottom of society (somewhat). Ricardo’s writing is pretty easy to translate directly into modern situations, like the expensive rent in New York and San Francisco.
Critique of Pure Reason (mobile) by Immanuel Kant essentially argues that reason, logic, and data is insufficient to gain a thorough understanding of the world. It’s a pretty heavy philosophical work, but if you go through it with patience, it will leave you thinking quite a lot about how people make decisions and some of the broader trends of society.
On Liberty (mobile) by John Stuart Mill argues that the only way to balance authority and liberty is to look for solutions that have maximum utility; in other words, neither strict authority or complete freedom is the best solution in all situations, but that individual situations may tend more in one direction or another.
Beyond Good and Evil (mobile) by Friedrich Nietzsche centers around the idea that a good person isn’t necessarily the complete opposite of an evil person and that they often operate on the same basic impulses, with “goodness” representing a refinement of those impulses. For example, a person who acts altruistically and a person who acts cruelly may be seeking the same benefit, but just have different approaches to acquiring that benefit.
Leaves of Grass (mobile) by Walt Whitman is perhaps my favorite work of poetry ever written. I often quote Whitman in my pieces of inspiration columns, and many of his best works come from this book – and it’s free.
Poems (mobile) by Emily Dickinson, on the other hand, is a largely complete collection of her works. I often think of Whitman as being a poet about the “outside” – the world at large – whereas Dickinson often strikes a chord with the “inside” – the internal world. That’s not a strict line, of course, but it’s a description of how each makes me feel.
Essays / General Nonfiction
Walden (mobile) by Henry David Thoreau tells the tale of a two year period in Thoreau’s life in which he lived largely in solitude in the woods near Walden Pond in a house he built himself. The book is highly introspective, as one might expect; Thoreau uses the opportunity to reflect inwards on himself and his character as well as outwards on society as a whole.
Essays (mobile) by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a large pile of wonderful essays by one of my favorite writers of all time. I covered one of his essays, Self-Reliance, in an in-depth three series a few years back, but that essay just scratches the surface of the great things one can find in this volume. As always with a book of essays, it can easily be read in small pieces, broken up at your convenience.
The Education of Henry Adams (mobile) by Henry Adams is a wonderful book about the power of self-directed learning and education through a mix of books and experiences. Adams looks at himself under a microscope to figure out what he has done to acquire knowledge and arrive at his current understanding of the world, and in doing so imparts a lot of very strong ideas about self-education and opportunity.
The King James Bible (mobile) might not be the best translation of the Holy Bible into English, but there are portions of it that are almost stunning in the beauty of the language. It’s the translation most often quoted in literature and popular culture and for good reason. This is worth reading for cultural understanding and for pure literary appreciation, regardless of your beliefs.
The Qu’ran (mobile) is in much the same boat as the Bible – regardless of your particular religious beliefs, it is worth reading as a cultural document and as a tool for better understanding of a religion followed by billions. As with the Bible, there are sections that are incredibly beautiful and lyrical that will touch your heart and spirit.
The Bhagavad Gita (mobile) is a Hindu scripture that takes the form of a dialogue between a prince and his charioteer as they discuss fighting in an upcoming battle. Is it more important to be chivalrous or to fight to win if you believe your cause to be right? The entire work is beautiful and lyrical and centers on a powerful question.
Analects (mobile)by Confucius is one of the central works of Confucianism and consists of a number of sayings and ideas attributed to him. This work really feels like a general guidance on how to live a reflective and patient and morally cultivated life, which is needed to be part of a good society.
Rámáyan of Válmíki (mobile) is an epic poem that is a key work in several religions (Hinduism, Jain, and Sikh) and several cultures in south Asia. The poem focuses on how to be an ideal person no matter your role in life – the ideal servant, the ideal wife, the ideal brother, the ideal father, and the ideal king, among others, and how they relate to one another.
Democracy in America (mobile) by Alexis de Tocqueville is a powerful interconnected series of essays about America and how it self-governs. The book is positive but realistic and insightful, and it provides some incredibly worthwhile reading for anyone troubled by the current political state in American and wanting to get in touch with the grand American political experiment.
The Histories (mobile) by Herodotus is an ancient work describing the clashes between the various societies of northern Africa and Greece during the 5th century BC. It describes the rise of the Persian empire and many small wars, and interestingly intermeshes Greek mythology with the conflicts of humans.
Whew! If you can’t find something to read in there, you’re not trying!