Deep-diving Project Gutenberg

When I started writing this column, my editor joked, based on his pretty accurate understanding of my literary tastes, that I would only pick really, really old books to recommend.

But guess what, Mark—you also asked me to recommend things that anyone can access. Let me think, what’s free and accessible to anyone online? Oh, how about everything that’s out of copyright? So yeah, old stuff.

Project Gutenberg ( is an online repository for out-of-copyright literary materials. Classics are available in downloadable eBook form and are compatible with Kindle.

A glance at Project Gutenberg’s Top 100 most downloaded eBooks from recent days sees the coveted top slot occupied by Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year.” Oof. Other top entries include “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens. While all great and all undeniably thematically relevant, it might be best, for the time being, to shy away from such dismal prose and seek out cheerier shores upon which to beach to our readership.

“The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett

“The Secret Garden” is a simple story and one of my all-time favorite books. It is a tale of honest joy and hope, a small story of the triumph of the human spirit and the power we have to help each other.

Burnett’s novel focuses on a young, recently orphaned girl who goes to live with her aloof uncle in an old British manor. Here, she meets her sickly, bedridden cousin and, through exercises in basic human decency and a budding appreciation for the natural beauty of the world, they lift each other’s spirits and rekindle the light of hope in their daily lives and the lives of those around them.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde

If you’re home in seclusion with a group of people—perhaps your family?—maybe consider putting on a play. It could be a fun way to keep everyone entertained for a few hours, plus it would provide tasks to do if people are feeling idle.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” is one of the greatest comedies ever written. Plain and simple. I don’t feel the need to elaborate upon that point.

Unsurprisingly, all of Shakespeare is on Gutenberg, too. I might not recommend “King Lear” or “Macbeth” for casual reading, but “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is guaranteed to put a smile on your face and is straightforward enough for young actors to read, perform and appreciate without feeling like they’re being duped into doing extra homework.

“Scott’s Last Expedition” by Robert Falcon Scott

It’s not light, fun reading. It’s the diary of man enduring unbelievable hardships and then facing his inevitable death, knowing full well it’s coming.

That may sound like a grim and depressing way to spend an afternoon, but there’s something innately inspiring in the account of Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition. A reader can learn a lot about life and how to live by analyzing how Scott and his crew dealt with their fates.

They do not succumb to woe, they do not give up, they do not panic and they do not pity themselves. They do the best they can with the hand they’re dealt, and in the end, that’s all anyone can hope to do.

Reading is just about the best thing a person can do when there is nothing to be done. Jane Austen once quipped (in “Northanger Abbey,” if memory serves), that “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

But also keep in mind Miguel de Cervantes’ words of wisdom in “Don Quixote”: “Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”

With those words, you’ll also want to mix in some viewing and listening. We’ll get to that. For more recommendations, check back in future issues of the Idaho Mountain Express for more Melville Minutes.

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