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What are some great public domain books?
November 28, 2008 1:38 PM   Subscribe

Please give me your recommendations for great in-the-public-domain reads.

Since buying a Kindle last year, a number of out-of-copyright books have become accessible since I can now read them on the Kindle rather than on my computer screen.
I know of many good sources for such books: the MobileRead forums, Feedbooks, Manybooks and of course Project Gutenberg. The hard part is figuring out what's worth reading beforehand. So far I've read through lots of Wodehouse, all the Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey that's out of copyright, all of Jerome K Jerome's work and lots of Mark Twain and George Orwell's essays. So tell me, what other great free reads am I missing out on? I'm mostly looking for light, fun reads, though please don't let that stop you from making a recommendation.
posted by peacheater to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
 
One of my favorites free reads is "House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton. It's not exactly light fun, but it starts out that way. It very gradually becomes more serious. To me, Wharton reads like Jane Austen with more depth.

"The Great Gatsby" is available here.

You might enjoy reading Anton Chekhov's short stories.
posted by grumblebee at 2:07 PM on November 28, 2008


P.G. Wodehouse.
Jane Austen.
L. Frank Baum.
Oscar Wilde.
Lewis Carroll.
G.K. Chesterton.
posted by joannemerriam at 2:08 PM on November 28, 2008


One of my favorites free reads is "House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton.
I actually just read that a few months ago. You're right, a great read, if pretty merciless. I also liked "The Age of Innocence."
Loved "The Great Gatsby", Chesterton (just finished all his Father Brown short stories) and Carroll (even Sylvie and Bruno).
Have only read a few things by Austen, Chekhov and Wilde.
posted by peacheater at 2:18 PM on November 28, 2008


How about Dickens? That could keep you busy for a while.
posted by grumblebee at 2:23 PM on November 28, 2008


Maugham, Of Human Bondage.
Conrad, The Secret Agent.
Mitchell, Gone With the Wind.
Stoker, Dracula.
Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo.
Bronte, Jane Eyre.
Stendahl, The Red and the Black.
posted by Houstonian at 2:23 PM on November 28, 2008


If you liked Wharton's House of Mirth but found it merciless you will like her Th e Glimpses of the Moon even more.
posted by nicwolff at 2:50 PM on November 28, 2008


If you haven't read Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, it's fantastic and completely different from the Father Brown stuff. Seems like I end up reading it every few years, and I always find something new to enjoy about it.
posted by gimli at 2:53 PM on November 28, 2008


I don't know if you are looking for just free stuff, or specifically public domain...but Baen Books lets you download a bunch of their stuff for free and now they've got hookups with Kindle and iPod/Phone bookshelf.

http://www.webscription.net/

that's to their paid site, but on the iPod the bookshelf link lets you go to the free stuff too which is: http://www.baen.com/library/ if you want to check it out before mucking about with it.
posted by legotech at 2:57 PM on November 28, 2008


Pretty much all the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels are available online. I'd also recommend Algernon Blackwood for some great ghost stories, although I don't know whether you would consider them light reads or not.
posted by fearthehat at 2:58 PM on November 28, 2008


Grumblebee, I probably should give Dickens another try. I've read David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol and gave up on the others as a kid.
Thanks for all the suggestions Houstonian as well as the links. I think I will definitely read "Of Human Bondage".
If you haven't read Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, it's fantastic and completely different from the Father Brown stuff.
Oooh, thanks for the idea. Had heard of it, don't know why I forgot about it.
I don't know if you are looking for just free stuff, or specifically public domain...
To clarify, am looking for any and all free stuff, anything legal.
Pretty much all the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels are available online. I'd also recommend Algernon Blackwood for some great ghost stories, although I don't know whether you would consider them light reads or not.
I have read and reread Sherlock Holmes so many times it's gotten ridiculous. Had never heard of Algernon Blackwood, thanks for that. Am bit of a wimp when it comes to ghost stories, unfortunately.
posted by peacheater at 3:17 PM on November 28, 2008


Please keep the suggestions coming. I really appreciate it.
posted by peacheater at 3:17 PM on November 28, 2008


If you liked Wharton's House of Mirth but found it merciless you will like her Th e Glimpses of the Moon even more.
That sounds perfect!
posted by peacheater at 3:18 PM on November 28, 2008


Kipling's Kim.
Edgar Allen Poe.

There also most everything by Cory Doctorow if the mere fact of it being Cory Doctorow doesn't turn you off.
posted by juv3nal at 4:10 PM on November 28, 2008


Give Melville a try, you either love him or hate him (give him at least 30 pages, though, to get into the style). Start with Moby Dick, of course.

For something lighter, there's Lucy Maud Mongomery's Anne of Green Gables books. As a mid-thirties man, I'd never have read them but for my wife. But they're great fun, really.
posted by rikschell at 5:45 PM on November 28, 2008


Definitely Of Human Bondage. At first the prose might seem bland and almost emotionless but it grows on you. You might also like The Moon and Sixpence, a fictionalized account of the life of Gauguin, also by Maugham, but quite a bit darker.

For a lighter but compelling story, you might look at Fanny Herself by Edna Ferber. A young Jewish woman in a town like Appleton, Wisconsin, becomes a successful big-city business woman but can't completely suppress her artistic and ethical side.

For a really light read, I enjoyed Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Young Betsy is removed from a sheltered city life for adventures on a Vermont farm. Lots of interesting details about daily life and culture in the early 1900s.

I'm also a big fan of Thomas Hardy and George Eliot. The themes can be a little dark but there's often pleasant pastoral details and light, wry observations about human foibles. You might start with Silas Marner.
posted by PatoPata at 6:09 PM on November 28, 2008


"Blindsight" by Peter Watts is a thought-provoking and rather dark piece of science fiction. I really enjoyed it; well worth a read if you're not allergic to science fiction. I read another of his books which I'd also reccommend if I could remember the title. All the action happened in a station at the bottom of the sea, if that's any help.

Cory Doctorow's short stories are very readable and I quite enjoyed Little Brother, his recent "Young Adult Fiction" book. You can tell that he's a tech/science writer but if you can see past the occasional geeky passage, it's worth a look.

In a very different style, I believe the Gormenghast series is legally available now. Huge, dark books about a moribund society living in a vast crumbling citadel. Extremely difficult to describe properly, but among my favourite books for the vivid depictions of the warped but internally logical society and the characters in it. If nothing else, you'll find yourself empathising with an absolute bastard, which is marvellous fun. Some people find the prose quite dense and hard going; while I'd agree it's not a very relaxing book, I really like the style.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a great read. It's slightly spoiled by the fact you've known the big twist for longer than you can remember, but still marvellously told.

Oscar Wilde's stuff is in the public domain now, I think. A Picture of Dorian Grey is a fantastic book, and beautifully written even if you already know the ending. Wilde also had a lot of short stories which are worth a look: he's most famous for his wit, which shines through in all his writing, but even without it his prose would still be great fun to read.

Then of course there's all the obvious stuff: Dickens (can't stand him, but I'm in the minority), Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wordsworth, Byron, Poe (some excellent short stories, very creepy)... lots of dead beardy Englishmen.
posted by metaBugs at 6:21 PM on November 28, 2008


I don't know what format the kindle takes, but if you use html (I convert html to plucker for my Clie e-reader) then the University of Adelaide library has a good collection of the Project Gutenburg text nicely formatted in html.

Ditto Conrad -- lots of great reading there. R.L. Stevenson: The Master of Ballantrae (a bit dated but good); Honoré de Balzac - Cousin Bette; Galsworthy... My ebook list is at work or I'd add more.
posted by anadem at 6:55 PM on November 28, 2008


Aristophanes' Lysistrata had me laughing so hard I had to put it down a couple of times. Very funny, earthy stuff. Honestly, pretty much any adventure/mystery/comedy "classic" published before 1923 is going to be worth looking at. I'll second Joseph Conrad (loved the stories "Typhoon," "Youth" and "The Secret Sharer"), Stevenson's rip-roarer Treasure Island and the oddly fascinating Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Voltaire's brilliantly sly Candide, Boccaccio's smutty and hilarious Decameron (working through it slowly, but book 1 had a lot of fun at the expense of oversexed clergy), Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Austen's drily witty Pride and Prejudice.

I got some good answers to a question about laugh-out-loud funny classic lit a couple of years ago that you might find useful.
posted by mediareport at 7:00 PM on November 28, 2008


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain is light, fun and often poignant.
posted by ersatz at 5:59 AM on November 29, 2008


I believe the Gormenghast series is legally available now.

Is this true? The first book was published in 1946, so it should still be in copyright -- unless the author (or his estate) didn't renew it. If anyone has info on this, please share. I can't find texts online, which makes me think it's not in public domain.
posted by grumblebee at 10:30 AM on November 29, 2008


I can't find texts online, which makes me think it's not in public domain.
I couldn't find Gormenghast online either.
PatoPata, Fanny Herself and Understood Betsy sound right up my alley.
metaBugs, Blindsight looks great. I'm definitely not allergic to science fiction, one of my favorite genres.
anadem The Kindle doesn't handle HTML very well, it needs .mobi or .prc formats. Manybooks and Feedbooks that I linked to above usually convert the Project Gutenberg texts into these formats.
mediareportI loved Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but not enough to reread it. I loved Pride and Prejudice but have never been able to get into any of her other books. Thanks for the link to that other thread -- lots of great material there.
posted by peacheater at 12:27 PM on November 29, 2008


The complete works of Saki are up at Project Gutenberg and definitely worth a look. Short stories, mostly dark comedy, great for a commute.
posted by the latin mouse at 2:36 PM on November 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


If you like Holmes, you may also like Doyle's other stuff - I'm a big fan of the Professor Challenger stories myself.
posted by curious_yellow at 3:01 PM on November 30, 2008


Some of my Gutenberg favorites:

Frank Stockton's The Beeman of Orn has some delightful and whimsical fairy-tale/fantasy type short stories. I have read them to my children at bedtime, but love them myself.

Frankenstien. If you haven't read the original, you should.

Kim.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 11:34 AM on December 1, 2008


Little Fuzzy is a charming 1962 sf novel. Not sure why it fell into the public domain.

Trent's Last Case is a 1913 English murder mystery that's interesting both as a mystery and for its 1913 viewpoint.

I enthusiastically second metaBugs' recommendation of Blindsight (which isn't out-of-copyright, but is freely available on-line.) Also copyrighted but available are several good sf collections from Small Beer Press.

Darwin's On the Origin of Species

Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, subject of this post in the blue.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:38 PM on December 1, 2008


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