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Top 10 Free eBooks

June 26, 2011

Although Project Gutenberg is a wonderful resource, a common complaint about it is that it follows Sturgeon’s Law – 90% of the books there are things you definitely don’t want to read, and which in many cases make you wonder why the author thought it was a good idea to write them! But there is a lot of gold amongst the dross – here are my favourites, in no particular order. I have tried to avoid the most obvious and most frequently downloaded books.

  • Moby Dick

    From its famous opening sentence – Call me Ishmael – to its terrifying ending, this is a book that never ceases to enthral. Part existential musing, part prose poem and part realistic novel about whaling (and what a hard and nasty job that seems to have been), this is the great American novel. Nothing before or since has even come close. And there is a lot of low humour – for example there is a fart joke in the first chapter. Younger readers should not be put off by the title, which nowadays unfortunately sounds like the autobiography of a porn star.

  • Emma

    In Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen created a heroine that all men and most women fall immediately in love with. In Emma Woodhouse, she created one that most people of both sexes would like to take outside and give a good kicking to. Emma is smug, spoilt and deeply stupid. But, by Austen’s magic, at the end of the book we have come to like (maybe even love) her, and are happy when she (I don’t think I give too much away here) gets her man. A supporting cast of world-class grotesques, and Emma’s own dim-witted activities make this a very, very funny book.

  • The Jungle Book

    Forget the Disney cartoon travesty – this is the real stuff. Nature is red in tooth and claw, and The Jungle Book is all about death, and lots of it. Wonderfully poetic and very scary by turns, this is the best thing Kipling ever did, which is saying something. You will also want The Second Jungle Book, and for a view of late Victorian society in India, also red in tooth and claw, Plain Tales From The Hills.

  • Songs of Innocence and Experience

    William Blake, arguably a failure in his own lifetime, both as a poet and a painter, is now seen as being among the greatest in both categories. His Jerusalem is often cited as being England’s unofficial national anthem, and if we can only turn ourself free of the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, it may become the official one. The Songs are all very short poems, which are simple, wise, provocative and touching. Even if you think you don’t like poetry, take a look at this.

  • Great Expectations

    The journey of Pip, from abused child, through selfishness and self-delusion, to something like goodness, is the best and most realistic thing that Charles Dickens ever wrote, although Hard Times comes close. Unlike almost all his other novels, there are no idealised child-women, and he keeps a tight rein on the “comic” characters. And it has the most beautiful ending of any book I know.

  • The Diary Of A Nobody

    From the sublime to the deeply (but still self-deluding) ridiculous. Charles Pooter’s misadventures as a clerk in late Victorian London are one of the funniest things ever written, even though the Grossmith brothers do rather let him of the hook at the end. Unfortunately, none of the Gutenberg eBooks seem to include the illustrations from the original – the one of Pooter in his bath after he has painted it with red enamel, but crucially not allowed it to dry, is one of my personal favourites. An alternative to Gutenberg which does have them is here.

  • Ulysses

    Back from the ridiculous to the sublime, but still with many elements of farce. Joyce’s great work is one I have been spelunking in for many years. My Penguin paper copy (an asked-for birthday present) has a message from my ex-wife hoping that I will enjoy it. And I suppose I have, although “enjoy” is perhaps not the right word. Like many of the books I’ve listed here, one perhaps should not take Stephen’s or Bloom’s day in Dublin too seriously – there are a lot of jokes. And for those put off by the thought of over 700 pages, take a look at the wonderful short stories in Dubliners.

  • Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary

    After Joyce, you may be in the mood for something lighter, or in this case, darker. Everyone loves a ghost story, and M.R. James was one of the masters of this craft. As a schoolboy I frequently went to Evensong at Lincoln cathedral, and James’ stories always bring back to me the Gothic architecture, the strangely carved pews, and the lurking darkness.

  • The Waste Land

    We are back to the sublime, and to poetry. Eliot’s poem is probably the most famous ever written, but I am ashamed to say that I had never actually bothered to read it it until I heard a broadcast of it on BBC Radio 3, using the voices of Eliot himself, the late Ted Hughes, and Lia Williams. The interplay between the voices made the poem come alive to me, in the way that previous readings I had heard never did. Needless to say, the clueless and incompetent bunch that run the BBC (ex-BBC employee speaking – Dilbert has nothing on these people) have removed it from their website, but you can hear it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LP9taUtLlYQ. I recommend just listening to it once through, and then listening and reading a second, and a third time.

  • The Man Who Was Thursday

    And to close, something completely different. I have no way of knowing if John Cleese and Co. were influenced by this book, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were (or were not). G. K. Chesterton was something of a nutcase, and this is one of his nuttiest books – but what a book! Ignore the facetious opening chapter, and relish the almost immediate descent into madness. Oh, and it is also quite funny.

Writing that last para on Chesterton made me realise how often I have stressed the funniness of the the books I’ve recommended. In my opinion, if a book doesn’t make you laugh out loud (even if it deals with terrible matters), it isn’t much of a book.

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From → books, freeware, top 10

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