From Aristotle to Woolf, There Are Millions of Free Books Available Online During Quarantine


Shira Mansell

While there is a wide range of books available online for free, they tend to be published before 1925.

With millions of New Yorkers now stuck at home and bored, the New York Public Library, physically shuttered but still operating online, has seen a rise in demand. Ebook checkouts are, per the NYPL, up 10% from last year, and the results are months-long waitlists for more popular titles.

If you are willing to read less modern books, it is easy to avoid the library entirely. Most books published before 1925, including Tolstoy’s War and Peace with its eight-week waitlist from the NYPL, are in the public domain, meaning their copyrights, if they ever existed, have expired. There is nothing stopping anyone from posting their contents online, and that is exactly what people have done. There are millions of free books available to anyone with access to the internet.

It is impossible to list all of the websites that archive non copyrighted books, but that is what the University of Pennsylvania’s Online Book Page has set out to do. It is a handy index of 3 million free online books. This means that while the website does not host any books, it provides links to the websites that do.

Many of these links are to Project Gutenberg, one of the best places to look for books in the public domain. Founded in 1971 and powered by volunteers, it provides over 60,000 books that can be downloaded in a multitude of formats or read in any web browser. Project Gutenberg describes its books as belonging to three general categories: “light literature,” like fairy tales and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland; “heavy literature,” such as Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; and references, including dictionaries and almanacs.

Project Gutenberg is unique in its accessibility. However, larger in scope are the Internet Archive’s two digital libraries. The Open Library is a catalog of 20 million books, some with limited online copies and some that simply do not exist online. The National Emergency Library is a compilation of 1.4 million modern books for which the Internet Archive has chosen to suspend waitlists, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. 

The downsides are that both libraries require readers to create a free account and seem to only lend books in one format: uploaded images of individual pages. This takes away a lot of the benefits of ebooks, but it does bring back a bit of the feeling of checking a physical book out of the library. “There’s something about having a book in your hands and turning the pages that an ebook can never replace,” said Bronx Science librarian Ms. Sweis. The Open and National Emergency Libraries come a bit closer to doing so.

While the above websites have their own ways to facilitate literary exploration, like “bookshelves” organized by genre or lists of recently returned ebooks, none are very effective. And if you are not looking for anything specific, millennia worth of global literature can make for an overwhelming list from which to choose. The following suggestions are a place to start and include more niche collections of books.

The Colour Out of Space – H.P. Lovecraft (The H.P. Lovecraft Archive)

An early 20th century American author, H.P. Lovecraft wrote over fifty works of horror, including The Call of Cthulhu. What is great about Lovecraft’s writing is that he condenses suspense into a few pages and builds it up by playing on what the reader does and does not know. To read Lovecraft is to suddenly find yourself struggling to keep your eyes from jumping to the end. You cannot go wrong choosing any of Lovecraft’s horror (do avoid his comedy, however). If you need somewhere to start, The Colour Out of Space is a wonderful and short sample of Lovecraft’s work. It is the story of a New England family’s disturbing and slow decline after an asteroid lands on their farm and contaminates the water.

The Thirteen Problems – Agatha Christie (Internet Archive)

Agatha Christie, the so-called queen of crime, was an extremely prolific mystery writer. Her recurrent characters include Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and young duo Tommy and Tuppence. Christie’s Miss Marple, however, is especially unique among literary detectives: the elderly amateur mostly solves mysteries from the comfort of her home. While often underestimated because of her age and provincial upbringing, Miss Marple has a sharp mind and an excellent understanding of human nature. The Thirteen Problems, a collection of thirteen short mysteries starring Miss Marple, is a compelling introduction to Christie’s writing. 

Metamorphoses – Ovid (Internet Sacred Text Archive)

Homer’s The Odyssey is a standard classic of required reading at Bronx Science. A classical text just as deserving is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of over 250 Roman myths loosely connected through a theme of transformation. The language is lovely and the stories, including less commonly known myths like that of Iphis and Ianthe, are fascinating. In my opinion, A.D. Melville’s translation is the best (no relation to Herman of Moby-Dick fame). However, Whittaker’s publication is worth looking at for any Latin students, and the Internet Sacred Text Archive, which offers religious texts from the Norse Poetic Edda to Zoroastrian sacred texts, has an interesting, albeit hard-to-read, 18th century translation

Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy (Project Gutenberg)

So much of 19th century British literature can appear to be sexist when read through a 21st century lens, that it is a relief to read something that is not. Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented by Thomas Hardy belongs to the latter category. The title itself is a challenge: Tess is not a “pure woman” by rigid Victorian standards, although it is also not by her choice. Tess is the daughter of impoverished farmers, and her tragedy, like those of Greek myth, is largely out of her control. In this story, society takes the place of fate as the depriver of agency, making Tess of the D’Urbervilles one of Hardy’s most absorbing and overwhelmingly moving works.

The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde (Project Gutenberg)

If after reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles you feel yourself in need of a laugh, look no further than Oscar Wilde. Perhaps better known for his only novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote plays, poems, and an incredibly boring essay speculating on Shakespeare’s identity. The Importance of Being Earnest (staged at Bronx Science in 2016) is a comedy full of witty quips and amusingly unlikely but ironic twists of fate.

“There’s something about having a book in your hands and turning the pages that an ebook can never replace,” said Bronx Science librarian Ms. Sweis.