For example: do you know about Project Gutenberg? Named after one of the inventors of the moveable type printing press, this amazing site features over 30,000 public domain books. In fact, most of the books you could have found in a university library 100 years ago can now be downloaded here, free of charge.
From Plato to Mark Twain to Sir Issac Newton to Sun Tzu to Shakespeare, Project Gutenberg is an amazing resource featuring knowledge, beauty and wisdom handed down through the ages. Pretty much any text you can think of older than 100 years can be downloaded here.
Even more amazing is a simple Adobe Air application for Linux, Mac and Windows which can give you almost instant access to any of these works. The somewhat confusingly named NetBook Reader is perhaps better called Netbook Library, because that’s what it is: an instant library for your netbook or any other computer. The Netbook Reader software allows you to quickly search all of Project Gutenberg and then read any text you find almost instantly. Best of all, it will cache content you download for offline reading later.
The program was briefly mentioned in Steven Finch’s article 8 Adobe Air Apps that Don’t Suck, but here we’ll take a deeper look at what it has to offer.
Got an author or book on your mind? Just search for it. The Netbook Reader software will quickly look through its index of the entire Gutenburg library and show you the relevant titles.
There are two kinds of books listed here: old-fashioned text and audio books. Be sure to glance at the program’s third column to ensure you’re getting the format you want.
Not sure what to search for? Click the “New Books” button to see the latest arrivals in the Gutenburg library.
Once you do find a book you like, you can read or listen to it instantly from within the reader itself.
There’s not much to complain about with the NetBook Reader software. The text is crisp and easy to read, and in some instances even includes illustrations from the original publication, as seen above.
As a reader, Netbook Reader is not without its faults, however. I typically turn my netbook sideways while reading to achieve the form factor of a book; Netbook Reader does not allow for this. Additionally, while Netbook Reader does automatically remember where I left off last in textbooks, it does not do this for audio books. This means you have to listen to the entire text in one sitting or not at all – hardly useful. Perhaps the program should allow users to simply download the audio and play it back in the player of their choice.
Overall, however, the program is really good. It even stores books you’ve already downloaded, allowing you to read books while away from your internet connection.
Start Netbook Reader connected to the internet and you’ll immediately be shown the entirety of the Gutenberg library. Start Netbook Reader while offline however, and you’ll only be shown books already downloaded to your computer.
Everytime you open a book – audio or text – it is automatically stored in your cache for offline reading. Convenient, right?
If you’re concerned about your hard drive filling up, don’t worry: you can empty the cache at any time. Just click the “Preferences” tab, and then the “Empty Cache” button.
Getting Netbook Reader is a snap. Just head over to this page and click the “Download from Publisher” button. If you don’t have Adobe Air, don’t worry: clicking the link will automatically install Air on Linux, Mac and Windows.
Netbook Reader is a simple application that gives you access to a repository jam-packed with knowledge. Before you purchase an e-book of a pre-20th-century text you should check if you can get it here for free.
If you’re not too keen on using Netbook Reader, don’t let that keep you from Project Gutenberg. Simply head over to the site itself and download the texts on your own.
What do you think? Is Netbook Reader a good way to browse Project Gutenberg for free e-books? Do you have another source for free e-books from ages past? Do you consider electronic books inferior to their dead tree counterparts in the physical realm? As always, comment away!