The first time I stumbled upon the Gutenberg archive, in 1995 or so, using my ISP’s proprietary browser, on my brand new “486 computer” from the JC Penney catalog, I thought it would be awesome, reading all these free books. I downloaded some of them (well, okay, hundreds) in text format. Maybe imported them into Word and messed with the formatting a little bit, to try to make them more readable on my monitor. And I remember not reading the ones I downloaded. Not any of them. Nothing. The first few pages of The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, and that was it.
Now that I have an iPad, I’m finally taking advantage of Gutenberg in a more meaningful way. Since iBooks uses the epub format, one of many formats available from Gutenberg, I was able to slurp down hundreds (well, okay, thousands) of books to my device, representing hours upon hours of subway reading, in one browsing session. Took me a couple of days to delete most of them unread. I still have a hoarding problem when it comes to free ebooks. I did, at least, read a few of them this time, and plan to read a few more.
Here is a fact. Most of the books in Gutenberg are utter crap. There are the classics you’ve heard of. There’s Cory Doctorow. And then there’s the treacly, sentimental, smug, pompous, (usually) Victorian crap. Now don’t get me wrong. I love Gutenberg, the idea of it and, yes, the execution of it. These books need preservation and distribution. No question. But let’s face facts. Even at the free price point, it’s a less-than-optimal consumer experience. So much stuff. So little of it worthwhile to even the most intellectual of general-interest readers. What we need is somebody willing to read everything — or as much of it as is possible to read — and report back on what’s worthwhile, skipping the obvious classics, of course (because everybody already knows that Moby Dick is worthwhile). The goal would be to find underappreciated gems in there.
Ladies and gentlemen, I propose to give it a go. I’ll dive in and read stuff that I’ve never heard of, and then report back here on what I thought about it. Some of the stuff will probably be more famous than I realize it is (“stuff I’ve never heard of” doesn’t mean nobody has). Some of the stuff will be less famous than it deserves to be. And most of it will be crap. I’ll probably spare you my thoughts on the crap. Which means it may take a long, long, long time for my next post in the “trawling gutenberg” category. We’ll see.