Great Fiction, Online? Does It Exist?
November 19, 2009 10:45 PM   Subscribe

Where can I find great works of fiction online or in some sort of text form that I can read on my Mac?

I want to become a better writer, and I realize this means I need to read more... but... I'm legally blind. My vision is just good enough that regular books are a pain to read (I definitely can, but exceptionally slowly). Oddly enough, large print is even more difficult for me to read. This is because bigger isn't better. For me, closer is better. I realize this might be hard for someone who doesn't have my vision to understand...

...luckily, I can read just fine on a computer. In fact, I'm constantly reading online. I'm practically addicted to it! The problem is, I'm reading everything except what I really should be reading in order to improve my writing.

I want to read great works of fiction. Hell, even just-plain-good works of fiction will do. What's available online? Is there anything I can find in text-form?

What should I be reading and where can I find it?

I'm not sure if this is helpful or not, but as a point of reference, this is an example of my writing. What I really want to do is learn to write fiction. Ah, but I've probably read fewer than 15 books in my entire life because I am suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuch a slow reader (with books, anyway. I do much better on a computer screen). Hence this question.

Oh, Hive mind, help me trade my bad habit of reading the news for a good habit of reading fiction [that I can learn from].
posted by 2oh1 to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Project Gutenberg is your source for all the best shit pre 1923 (or whenever exactly the copyright cutoff was). Eat it up.
posted by mumkin at 10:51 PM on November 19, 2009

Project Gutenberg (after Johannes, natch) claims to be the world's first ebook producer and has over 30,000 digital texts in a variety of formats, mostly plain text and HTML. They only have works that are in the public domain, however, so most of what's there was published before 1920. Of course, a great number of what people consider great works of fiction were published before 1920, so if that's what you're interested in, you might be in luck. I snagged Emily Dickinson's complete works and some Jack London novels from Gutenberg recently, and I was pleased.
posted by jingzuo at 10:54 PM on November 19, 2009

posted by cotesdurhone at 11:04 PM on November 19, 2009

Amazon just unveiled its free Kindle for PC application. You don't need to own a Kindle to download and use it. There are tons of free, public domain books for download in the Kindle store in addition to stuff you can purchase.

In addition to Gutenberg, there's also Bartleby, and other ebook sites where you can browse. Start here if you'd like.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:06 PM on November 19, 2009

Whoops, I forgot that the Mac version of the Kindle computer application isn't out yet. But Amazon says it's coming soon.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:07 PM on November 19, 2009

Holy cow! Great suggestions so far! Thank you, thank you, thank you.
posted by 2oh1 at 11:09 PM on November 19, 2009

Oh, and there's also Munsey's, which I'm really only familiar with from their integration with Stanza on the iPhone. I tend to think of it as a whole bunch of Golden Era pulps, but that's not the whole of the thing by any means. They offer many different download formats.

If you're looking for something to use as a reader on your Mac, I suggest trying Tofu. It's very configurable, in terms of font size, contrast, column width, etc. and works with TXT, HTML, RTF and PDF formats.
posted by mumkin at 11:11 PM on November 19, 2009

By the way-- reading slowly isn't necessarily bad. You may learn more that way than someone who reads quickly. I remember something I read about Jacques Derrida. An interviewer saw that all the walls of his office were lined with books. He asked him if he'd read them all. Derrida said something like: 'No, only small portion. But those I've read, I've read very well.' (Then again, Derrida is probably somewhat of a charlatan.) In any case-- when one looks the right way, everything can be a 'teacher.' Speed is rarely best. Just some thoughts.
posted by cotesdurhone at 11:16 PM on November 19, 2009

I highly recommend the Readability bookmarklet. Pick your settings, drag the button to your toolbar, and presto! Reading printed text on your computer will be much, much easier. (Via Mefi)
posted by invisible ink at 11:17 PM on November 19, 2009

The New Yorker's fiction section
posted by invisible ink at 11:20 PM on November 19, 2009

Nthing Project Gutenberg. I think a few countries have works that aren't available elsewhere due to differing copyright laws. Australia comes to mind, but I could be wrong.

Many of the libraries I've been to have had video-camera devices for the vision-impaired--basically a video camera mounted on a stand, pointed downwards and driving a video monitor next to it. The user puts the book under the camera and reads the screen. Maybe you could use such a device to read paper books? I think you could buy, commission, or rig one for somewhere in the three figures, but I could be wrong.

Relatedly, your local library is probably a good place to inquire. Most libraries have at least a few programs for people with impaired vision, and many of them can be pretty extensive.
posted by tellumo at 11:22 PM on November 19, 2009

Download audiobooks. Hearing the words aloud can often help make more sense of how a great sentence, paragraph, arc is structured, and you can "read" them anywhere, not just on your computer.

And yes, both Gutenberg and Bartleby have astounding collections of free, downloadable classics.

As for what you should be reading, that of course depends upon your personal taste, but there are lists everywhere. The Lifetime Reading Plan can be bought in paperback, or you can read the (probably illegal) title list here (this is from the 4th ed., which is the most recent). Another list is The Modern Library's 100 Best Novels.

Classics download (though I bet all of these are available at Gutenberg or Bartleby): Planet eBook's collection of free downloadable classics.

Here is a clearinghouse site of the 20 best sites to download free ebooks from.

Hope this is a good start!
posted by tzikeh at 11:29 PM on November 19, 2009

As a non-reader who wants to be a better writer, how do I figure out what I need to start reading first? That's why I added the link to my own writing, in hopes that someone might take a glance at it and help me figure out where to begin.
posted by 2oh1 at 12:12 AM on November 20, 2009

tzikeh: "Hope this is a good start!"

It is! Thank you!
posted by 2oh1 at 12:13 AM on November 20, 2009

jingzuo "a great number of what people consider great works of fiction were published before 1920, so if that's what you're interested in, you might be in luck."

Honestly, I'm not sure what I should be interested in. As a mostly non-reader, I'm 100% clueless about what authors I should be reading.
posted by 2oh1 at 12:15 AM on November 20, 2009

I was told that it's good to read Hemingway. I can't see him on Gutenberg, but must be out there somewhere. Go for simple, easy to read language.
posted by titanium_geek at 12:27 AM on November 20, 2009

The writer literati are, for the most part, a bunch of trendy phonies. They will all say the same thing: Read Hemingway, Nabakov, Chekhov and 'The Great Gatsby' and (insert-whatever-obscure-postmodern-author-to-show-how-non-conformist-i-am).

But my advice is this:

Read whatever the hell you want to read.

If you are previously a 'non-reader' then IMHO, there is no single author that you should be reading. Indeed on its own, such as you are like to find on Bartleby and Gutenberg can be incredibly tedioius, dull and self-defeating if you don't have a passion for reading in the first place.

So, find a couple of newer popular fiction releases on Amazon and start there, reading it within the Kindle for PC/Mac software as mentioned earlier if you like to see things on the screen. Just find a story that you think sounds good and will keep you engaged to the end and read it! Read mainstream, read trash. Read Dan Brown, read whatever moneymaking franchise the publishing houses are churning out at the moment. (if you like vampires at the moment then, boy, are you in luck)

Once you start reading, and appreciate a good story and well-written language, then you can get a little bit more experimental and delve into more complicated things.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 1:54 AM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

oops.. that should be:

Indeed classical literature on its own....
posted by TheOtherGuy at 1:56 AM on November 20, 2009

You should listen to TheOtherGuy.

This is totally anecdotal, but I recently spent two years in an MFA program for writers, and the reading list for fiction writers looked just as he suggests (though I'd throw in Joyce, too). However those who were the best, and most interesting writers, read pretty much whatever they could get their hands on.

In other words, you should be interested in whatever you're interested in. The key is reading copiously and widely--this will help you develop and narrow your own tastes, which will work wonders for your writing.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:03 AM on November 20, 2009

Oh, and just taking a (very) cursory glance at your writing, try Dave Sedaris and Jean Shepherd. I think you'd enjoy either of those writers.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:05 AM on November 20, 2009

Don't neglect audiobooks while you're at it. That's reading, too. There are various programs that record books for the blind and will mail them to you at no charge, such as National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic. You should be able to get a number of books and magazines there that you can't find online.
posted by Ery at 5:23 AM on November 20, 2009

Perseus has just about every extant classical text in both English and the original language, if you're into that.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:27 AM on November 20, 2009

One off-the-wall recommendation for you - there are a number of modern media projects out there that are heavily using online tools. One of my favorites is Shadow Unit (

The premise is a little complicated: it is basically the novelisation of a TV show that doesn't exist in our world, but does exist in one 4.5 degrees to the left, so to speak. (In other words, it's very much like this world, but with a very few specific changes.) And it's formatted as a series, with each 'episode' being written by different authors, and in varying combinations.

The founding authors all have substantial publication credits in the speculative fiction genre (Elizabeth Bear, Emma Bull, Sarah Monette, Will Shetterly,), and they continue to bring in other authors for guest episodes (Holly Black, for example.) They post periodic DVD extras (the kind of 'cut scene' that you'd get on a DVD from a movie or TV show) that would be a great example of shorter writing or other narrative styles than the longer episode formats.

What is cool about it from your point of view, in terms of looking at writing skills, is that you'd get to see how different authors handle issues of character, description, setting, dialogue, etc. There's also a forum community that's interested in discussing writing and technique among other topics (and a fairly detailed discussion of each episode) so you could see what other people got from the same text.

The site's free to read and entirely online, but they're paying the authors proportionately based on donations, so please donate a bit if you enjoy it. They recently finished Season 2 - season 3 will start next spring. (New episodes monthly for 8-9 months, plus the extras).

The one note is that the characters work for a (much disdained) section of the FBI that deals with anomalous crimes (stuff that doesn't have a conventional scientific explanation). That means that there are sometimes descriptions of violence, death, etc in about the same proportion as a show like Criminal Minds, CSI, etc. (It's not gore or violence for the sake of those things, but in service to the story, though.)
posted by modernhypatia at 6:47 AM on November 20, 2009

I mostly agree with TheOtherGuy that you should read what you like. You'll be likelier to stick with your reading and get more out of it if you enjoy it. Nonetheless, it never hurts to be aware of what are generally regarded as classics. An English professor at Rutgers has reconstructed the reading list for senior English majors used at Dartmouth many years ago. The list wouldn't pass muster these days, but it does give an idea of the authors and works that many readers (and writers) of English found important through the mid-20th century.

I must respectfully disagree with TheOtherGuy that you won't necessarily find much of interest on Gutenberg. Certainly, there's a great deal of stuff there that seems to have been digitized simply Because It Was There (i.e. in the public domain). There's also a fair portion of stuff which might be edifying to read, but very challenging or otherwise not much fun. However, it's not as though humanity only developed a sense of humor after WWII. Twain and Swift both provide very entertaining reads and so, though she employs a lighter touch with her humor, does Jane Austen. If you want to get really old school, the ancient Greek dramatist Aristophanes' Lysistrata is a riot: it's about a bunch of horny women who withhold sex from their husbands to get them to end the Peloponnesian War. Although the language can be difficult to plough through, reading Shakespeare is a revelation, at least if you've seen any popular movies in the past 20 years or so: the plots of many (most?) of them have been cribbed from Shakespeare.

So, try a wide variety of literature. Some you'll like, some you won't. Enjoy.
posted by jingzuo at 9:03 AM on November 20, 2009

You should read what you enjoy, and it's better to read a lot of middlebrow stuff for pleasure than to read nothing. On the other hand, classics are classics because (for the most part) they are so damn good.

If I was starting from zero, I'd first read:

1. the Bible
2. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey
3. all of Shakespeare (or as your much as time allows)

Homer, Shakespeare, and the Bible are great works in themselves, and will teach you everything about writing and constructing narratives. Having read them will also give you the background you'll need to really appreciate other, later works which build on and reference them.

After reading those, start on the masterworks of your genre. When I decided I wanted to write a mystery novel, I found a bunch of Best Of lists and compiled a master list of the greatest mystery novels [self link]. Reading such books will give you a grounding in what works in your genre and what's been done before. And even "literary" is a genre; they have more lists than all the others.
posted by paulg at 12:05 PM on November 20, 2009

Check out the Baen Free Library - dozens of science fiction and fantasy titles available completely free, and legit - put online by the publisher.

Also, check with your local library to see what ebooks they might have available for reading on your computer.
posted by kristi at 11:56 AM on November 21, 2009

Reading more is great but if you want to become a better writer I advise you write more.

Also, I don't think anyone's mentioned it but has tonnes of stuff in all sorts of media.
posted by wobh at 1:05 PM on November 21, 2009

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