Certainly, as we’ve been discussing on Readgreatliterature.com, classic literature from the Western tradition can offer thrilling stories, amazing characters, complex themes, and aesthetic wonders. But there’s another great benefit to reading the classics: you can access most of the great works for free, to read online or on your computer, or even to download to your favorite reading device.
Because so many great works from the past are now in the public domain, many websites have made it their mission to offer a multitude of great texts without charge. Yearning for some Shakespeare? No problem. Get access in five minutes. Moby Dick? A click away. Fiction by Zora Neale Hurston or poetry by Langston Hughes? Easy to find and enjoy. Today I’m going to share some of my favorite websites where you can read great literature online for free, and sometimes even find resources to help you enjoy it more.
Note: If you want ideas for great things to read from the sources listed below, check out these pages:
Where to Read Great Literature Online
1. Bartleby.com (http://www.bartleby.com/sv/welcome)
According to Bartleby, “We are the preeminent internet publisher of literature, reference and verse providing students, researchers and the intellectually curious with unlimited access to books and information on the web, free of charge.”
Bartleby has a huge database of classic literature, ranging from Aesop to Agatha Christie, including fiction, verse, and nonfiction. It also has a database of famous quotations and some literature anthologies.
Update: Bartleby.com appears to be in the process of remaking their site into a paid study aid website. The literature database is still accessible as of now, but not at the old URL. The updated URL is in the link above.
2. The Literature Network (http://www.online-literature.com/)
This site offers a database of great classics to read online, as well as some other resources, such as online quizzes, searchable quotations, and author bios. It also offers discussion forums on literary topics.
According to the website:
“We offer searchable online literature for the student, educator, or enthusiast. To find the work you’re looking for start by looking through the author index. We currently have over 3500 full books and over 4400 short stories and poems by over 260 authors. Our quotations database has over 8500 quotes, and our quiz system features over 340 quizzes.”
The interface of The Literature Network is pleasing, making this site worth checking out.
3. American Literature.com (https://americanliterature.com)
This site offers a wide variety of classic American authors and their works, teacher resources, children’s books, and featured collections such as the African American Library. In addition, the site includes some works by English authors and World authors. As with the other sites discussed so far, texts are not readily downloadable, but the site’s attractive interface is nice for online reading.
4. Classic Literature Library (http://classic-literature.co.uk/)
This site offers texts by English, Scottish, and American authors. I don’t find this site so easy to navigate, but it is a lively and interesting site to browse, and offers some collections you might not find so easily elsewhere.
Where to Find Poetry Online
There are three websites I return to again and again when I want a dose of great poetry, or need some information to help me appreciate it:
1. Poetry Foundation (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/)
This organization offers a wonderful website dedicated to fostering poetry and extending its readership. The site is beautiful in appearance, and includes a very large collection of poems, even recent ones. There are many other resources, too, to help increase knowledge and understanding of poetry, such as author bios and feature articles on authors, literary movements, or other literary concepts, which are enlightening and easy to read.
One of the site’s most fun features: Searchable collections of poems by themes, such as “poetry of empowerment” or “poetry and food.” You can also find audio recordings of poems, informative reading guides, and more. Even if you think you are not a “poetry person,” check out this site. I think you will enjoy exploring.
2. Poets.org, by the Academy of American Poets (https://www.poets.org/)
This site is associated with The Academy of American Poets, which according to their site, “was founded in 1934 to support American poets at all stages of their careers and to foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry.” Certainly this site is an important contribution to that mission.
Fun to search and explore, poets.org offers a huge collection of poems. The older classics like Donne and Keats are here, but the site also has many much more recent poems, by authors such as Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucille Clifton, and Sharon Olds. Poems can be searched by title and author, and also by “occasions,” “themes,” “forms,” and “schools and movements.”
Besides all that, the site has many nice resources both for readers and teachers, such as author bios and a section called “Teach this poem,” which provides lesson plans and discussion questions on selected poems. If you fall in love with poetry while browsing, you can sign up to receive the “poem of the day” in your email.
Check out this site. I think you will enjoy it.
3. No Fear Shakespeare (sparknotes.com/shakespeare)
Are you in the mood for a little Shakespeare, but not confident you will understand all the old poetic language? Explore Shakespeare’s plays on Sparknotes’ No Fear Shakespeare site. This site offers Shakespeare’s plays in both the original language and a simplified modern translation side-by-side. This is a great way to get used to reading Shakespeare’s beautiful but sometimes arcane language, or to untangle a passage or two that might be giving you trouble.
Where to Download Classic Literature
If you prefer to download your literature to read offline, on computers or your favorite e-reader, below are some sites that allow downloading as well as reading online.
1. Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/)
The granddaddy of all free eBook treasure troves is Project Gutenberg. According to their landing page:
“Project Gutenberg offers over 56,000 free eBooks: Choose among free epub books, free kindle books, download them or read them online. You will find the world’s great literature here, especially older works for which copyright has expired. We digitized and diligently proofread them with the help of thousands of volunteers.”
Just for fun, check out their list of the 100 most-downloaded ebooks on Project Gutenberg here.
According to the History Page of the site, Project Gutenberg was founded back in 1971 by Michael Hart during his time working at the Materials Research Lab at University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. He was given an enormous amount of computing power to use in his spare time, as were a few other operators, in hopes they would get better at their jobs and innovate new ways of using computers. He decided that the greatest value created by computers would not be computing per se, but would be the storage, retrieval, and searching of what was stored in our libraries.
The first e-text Hart created was the American Declaration of Independence.
There are few classic works in the public domain that are not available at Gutenberg.org. If you have a Kindle Fire, as I do, you can download a book in MOBI format to your computer and then quickly email them to your Kindle. For other tablets, both Ipads and Android devices, EPUB format is readable through many free reading apps. Most Gutenberg books are available in PDF format as well. If you like listening to your literature, Gutenberg also has a library of books recorded by volunteers for your download.
2. Free Classic E-books (http://www.freeclassicebooks.com/)
While not staggeringly large like Gutenberg.org, this site does offer a nice variety of eBooks in .pdf and .prc format. Prc format is readable by Kindle, Nook, and Kobo devices, according to the site. Here is a brief introduction to file types E-Books may be saved in, and which devices can read them.
3. Feedbooks.com Public Domain Books (https://www.feedbooks.com/catalog/public_domain)
This site sells books, but also offers many free downloadable classic works in the “Public Domain” section of their website. Most books are available in EPUB, PDF, or KINDLE format.
When Is It Important to Buy Great Literature?
With all this free literature floating about the Cloud, why would you ever want to buy an edition of your own? I can think of several major reasons, all both to improve your reading experience and to help preserve great works as a living part of our culture:
1. Edited editions of classic works provide you with the best introductions and footnotes by scholars to help you understand what you are reading.
Notes in a good edition will explain many of the words, historical events, and customs of bygone times, making the book easier to interpret. These explanations might need to be updated for different generations, as times and customs change and older ways are forgotten. Scholarship and continued curation of our best classic works should be supported.
2. Paying for authoritative editions gets you the version that is closest to what the author intended.
With a little quick research, you can determine which edition of a work is considered “authoritative.” That means that a scholar, or a team of scholars, has studied and researched to find out which of many available variations of a particular work is closest to what the author intended.
Works that are entered by volunteers into online databases may be accurate according to the copy they used to scan it, but only an expert can decide whether that copy is the best, most accurate version of an author’s work. Experts should be paid for all the work they do to study and extend our knowledge of the works most valued in our culture. When you buy an authoritative edition of a work, you are helping preserve that work as a living part of our culture.
3. Buying a recent edition of a translated work gets you the most up-to-date translation.
If you are reading a work that is translated from another language, such as Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the E-texts that are in the public domain, available on free sites, would probably have been translated before 1923. More recent translations will sound closer to today’s language and will probably be easier to read. In addition, scholars may have made recent discoveries that have changed they way some passages should be translated.
Explore Great Literature Online, Then Buy the Best for Your Library
So much wonderful literature is available to read online for no cost at all, so by all means, go out and explore! When you do find your favorites, especially if you connect to a work you want to learn more about, buy an excellent edition with scholarly footnotes and useful introductions about the author, era, and meaning of the work to help you extend your understanding.
Note: Now you know where to look for Great Literature, but what should you search for? See our recommendations:
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.