Writing

Read 60,000 Inspiring Books in The Oldest Free Online Library

Browse, read, and download books from Project Gutenberg, and learn how this resource could benefit your writing journey

Writing, like any art, is a process of combining concepts that you love with your unique style. Fantasy author Neil Gaiman calls it “confluence”: several things coming together to form a new idea. But to get these ideas, writers (and other creatives) need to consume many, many stories.

Where better to do so than a web archive that allows you to read books online for free? Project Gutenberg, now over 50 years old, is a popular resource for students, readers, writers, and beyond. Here, we’re exploring how this website came to be, which books you’ll find there, and how using it may boost your fiction or nonfiction writing.

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The front page of the Project Gutenberg website.

What is Project Gutenberg?

Founded in 1971 by Michael Hart, Project Gutenberg predates the modern internet, yet has become a world-renowned archive still in use today. It was the first library of free electronic books or eBooks, and the first text published was the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

The site was named after the Gutenberg printing press. This movable-type printing machine was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. Inspired by previous presses, this model made it possible to print 3,600 pages a day. It was the first time literature (both nonfiction and fiction) could be widely distributed in a quick and easy manner.

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Woodcut (1568), from 'A History of Graphic Design' (1998), via Wikipedia.

Project Gutenberg takes this mechanical innovation and turns it digital. Working within the copyright limitations of the US, contributors can make and distribute public domain books for free—and it’s completely powered by volunteers. These volunteers are free to create the eBooks in different formats, to allow for as open access as possible.

According to the website, “Project Gutenberg is powered by ideas, ideals, and by idealism.” Anyone can get involved, with all your questions about submitting a new book and managing copyright answered in their help section.

Which books are available on Project Gutenberg?

Any work in the public domain is eligible to appear on the website, so long as it conforms to US copyright law. That means there are a lot of books on there—over 60,000, from Edgar Allan Poe to Plato to Zora Neale Hurston.

Project Gutenberg divides the texts into three loose categories:

1. “Light literature” like fables and children’s stories.

2. “Heavy literature” like the Bible or major artistic collections (like Shakespeare’s collected plays).

3. “References” such as almanacs and textbooks.

The website tracks reads, and shares (anonymous) stats each week to celebrate which texts are being accessed the most. Some of the most popular texts as of mid-2022 include the works of Jane Austen, the Sherlock Holmes series, Frankenstein, and the Vietnamese epic poem The Tale of Kieu.

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The front page of Jane Austen's 'Persuasion', via gutenberg.org.

How to use the archive

To start browsing, we recommend checking out the Bookshelves section, which includes hand-curated collections based on shared topics. Once you find a topic of interest you can click through to find a selection of book covers. Gutenberg books generally come with neon graphic covers, unless an archive photo is available.

When you visit an eBook’s page, you can read online with HTML, or download a PDF, EPUB, Kindle-ready file, and sometimes other formats. Alongside English, you can find texts in French, Portuguese, and several other languages.

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The directory page for Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein', via gutenberg.org.

The books are not owned by Project Gutenberg. If they’re in the public domain you can read, download, print, share, and distribute them freely. However, if you’re outside of the US, the website recommends checking your own country’s copyright laws before using or resharing Project Gutenberg content as public domain rules vary from country to country.

Why read eBooks?

Finally, we want to touch on why this matters at all: how does this resource benefit us as creatives?

1. Inspiration. Purely and simply, you can read for enjoyment and to find ideas. As stated at the beginning of this article, the more stories you absorb, the more you’ll find interesting combinations for your own work.

2. Using public domain works in your original work. You are free to quote these works or directly use parts of them in your work, be it a piece of fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, or a multimedia project. Of course, we recommend citing your sources, but with these out-of-copyright works you are much freer to play with and reinvent the art of the past.

3. Create new adaptations of old works. In the publishing industry you’ll often hear this referred to as a retelling. Although fairytale and folklore retellings are common, you’ll also find contemporary Shakespeare adaptations and more on the shelves at any bookstore!

4. Study literature to create your own. Whether you choose to transcribe or simply read a classic work, by looking closely at the language, pacing, characterization, worldbuilding, and plots of the past, you can deepen your understanding of writing craft.

So, are you reading to start reading? Access Project Gutenberg here.

Ace your fiction writing with these bonus resources

1. Check out 15 inspiring online creative writing courses to help you go from zero draft to finished manuscript.

2. Spark your creativity with even more reading: explore our master post of 150 art and design books!

3. Starting from square one? Try writer Shaun Levin’s beginner course on book writing.

4. For children’s authors, dive into Piers Torday’s course on writing fantasy novels for kids.

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