The 5,000 Foot Bookshelf - Curated lists and collections of important texts
January 9, 2012 12:06 PM   Subscribe

When I finally take the plunge on an eBook reader I want an epic collection of public domain classic and/or important and/or utilitarian books to live on it. I'm looking for a particular sort of resource for this quest.

I'm not looking for specific suggestions of individual works. Indeed the problem is that the available range specific suggestions on what's important in the text field is so vast. I'm looking for resources that provide some packaging along with some context.

The Harvard Classics is an example of what I'm looking for. The qualities that make it desirable to me are:

1. It was curated with a specific intent to present a unified collection of essential works.
2. It provides context (in the case of the Classics, through the readers guides and lectures in the last two volumes) on the collection, individually and as a whole.

Bonus points (but not required) if it is online, provides links to the (free, legal) eBooks in question, and if the above-mentioned "context" is itself something that can be freely and legally downloaded and included with the works.

However I'd prefer more resources that point to complete original works rather than excerpting and anthologizing as the Harvard Classics does.

Extra bonus points for resources that point to collections that go further out there than those great works of classical literature that would be recognized as such by Professor Stodgypants of Cambridge as of the late 19th century - broader cultural base, non-western, counterculture/diverse etc. all very good. I'm also very interested in curated lists/collections of less purely literary works - specifically on history, politics, and (something I've little luck with so far) pragmatic, utilitarian reference works (though I recognize there is more of a problem with the material being outdated there).

It need not be online - i.e. it could be contained in a conventional book I'll have to go to the library for - if it fits the other bills.
posted by nanojath to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
If you don't find any resources providing both the curated lists and e-books, you can go about this in a two-step fashion. If that's what you do, you can get books at the Mobileread E-Book Library forums, where people share books they've scanned/trascribed, and are legal within certain jurisdictions (example: Little House on the Prairie books are public domain in Canada, per the copyright description on the linked page). You can also jump straight to the E-Book Index and browse the collection, or search for specific titles.

I've found these books to more closely reflect the physical book editions than books from Project Gutenberg, which is often provided as raw text with minimal formatting. But if you use PG as the source for your books, you should note that PG is the original, US-based project. There are a number of affiliated projects around the world, each complying with the local copyrights, and as such, having different collections of books.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:41 PM on January 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

There seems to be an app for that, although I'm not clear on how good it is from the app store page.

Also recent AskMe post may be helpful in answering the second part of your question, if not the eReader part.
posted by Wretch729 at 12:41 PM on January 9, 2012

As far as curated collections of essential works, you might find some answers in this thread, but I don't think any of those are available as free ebooks.
posted by mattbucher at 1:17 PM on January 9, 2012

Have you looked at the Mobile Reference books? They do nice ebook editions.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 1:52 PM on January 9, 2012

The British Library 19th Century Collection does a lot of what your looking for, but with a few big caveats: 1) it's only available for iPad, 2) you only get 100 books for free (they have 30,000 others available as part of the subscription) and 3) as the name suggests, it's limited to 19th century works. They do a good job of curating the collection and each book has a small section giving context, occasionally with video to relate the work to current life. They also have changing "featured collection" focusing on a smaller subset of the collection. For example, they're highlighting books on Iceland right now. You can get a better idea of what it looks like here. The big down side is that the monthly subscription is a bit pricey.
posted by chrisulonic at 1:53 PM on January 9, 2012 has a large selection of Harvard Classics for free ebook download. Browsing by category should narrow it down, but it will still be individual links/books, not one big package.
posted by jellywerker at 6:31 PM on January 9, 2012

Try the special collections over at There are some thematic lists of titles (Pulitzer prize winners, books about pirates etc), plus a quick link to books which are part of a series. That area (books part of a series) has some great stuff like the Everyman's Library, Newbery winners etc. Link:
posted by JoannaC at 7:01 PM on January 9, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for many helpful suggestions. I'll round up a few of my own explorations of the day, though it ended up more in either "compendium of totally unsorted free books" or "check it out a reading list" territory than I'd hoped. Maybe I'll start another blog...

The Internet Archive Text Archive - some promise in Sub-Collections and its attendant Additional Collections

ManyBooks eBooks Collections page - mentioned above, worth a hyperlink.

What higher recommendation than to be included in the Classic Comics Canon?

The Arrowhead Library System College Bound reading list.

Great Books Lists - includes some of the elusive Non-Western flavor, in part courtesy of articles from the Whole Earth catalog it appears.

The Telegraph's "Perfect Bookcase".

Ultimate Book List - interesting lists, lists of lists, analysis such as most listed books.

Amazon has a decent page on free book resources, and more than a couple free classics available for download.

Although canonically (hyuck) dead-white-guy-centric, quite a bit of content in Wikipedia's Western Canon page.

Open to further suggestions!
posted by nanojath at 10:22 PM on January 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm committing my usual indiscretion of turning an "Ask Metafilter" into a "Tell Metafilter" but another couple of links...

Don't know how I missed this great FPP about the 5 Foot Bookshelf.

Though not available in any coherent online package, similar project Great Books of the Western World has lots of inspiration.

Article contrasting Harvard Classics to Great Books, the Self-Made Scholar site in general probably a worthwhile place to dig around on my quest.
posted by nanojath at 8:46 AM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

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