If you are honest, gentle reader, you probably have a rough list of books that you’ve been meaning to read for a long time. The kind of classic you pick up in a bookshop, the kind that makes you mull over how it would change your life until you remember that the latest Twilight/Dan Brown crossover novel has come out and skitter off to buy that instead.
But thanks to so many books passing into the public domain and the pioneering work of organizations like Project Gutenberg, more foundational works are available for free than ever before. And what’s more, the widespread use of e-readers like the iPhone, iPad, and Kindle mean that you can now read and store these books with ease and comfort.
Unfortunately, good, free books for e-readers are often tough to come by. The top free book list on Apple’s iBooks can be hit-and-miss; finding free books using the Kindle’s navigation is a laborious process, and again frequently includes more self-promoting teaser tomes from marketing gurus than it does books that you really want to read. Even if you have a specific classic in mind, the first search results are often ‘critical editions’ of the books which, while providing context and generally not costing as much as new releases, aren’t free. You clicked this link because it had ‘free’ in the title, right?
Below is a brief, curated list of the some of the best books available, for free, and formatted for the eReader of your choice. Remember, many of these are platform-agnostic: nearly all the Project Gutenberg books are available on the iBooks store, and the Kindle app runs on numerous platforms.
Also, because many of these books are in the public domain they lack important extras like notations, footnotes, and indices. You might think these aren’t important, but try reading The Aeneid or Shakespeare without them. You could spring for the pay-versions, but why not use another free resource and take a trip to your local library instead?
Without further ado, here are 50 Free, Classic eBooks That You No Longer Have An Excuse Not To Read.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – Jules Verne (Project Gutenberg)
This story has been remade and redone so many times that most people forget that the story revolves not around a submarine, but a crazed madman on a quest for revenge. Enjoy the madness, and the painstakingly thought-out technology of Jules Verne.
The Time Machine – H.G. Wells (Project Gutenberg)
Far, far better than any of the laughable adaptations, it’s mostly a social commentary on class. But it’s a lot of fun, from one of the original Sci-Fi masters.
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley (Kindle Store)
When she was 18, Shelley wrote this book, made herself and characters legendary, and arguably outshone her husband, “Ozymandias” author Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Looking Backward: 2000-1887 – Edward Bellamy (Project Gutenberg)
A man falls asleep in 1887 and rip-van-winkles his way into the dawn of the 21st century, discovering much that is shocking. Though originally intended as a social commentary on 19th century, it is nonetheless instructive well past the its prognosticated future.
Dracula – Bram Stoker (iBooks)
A surprisingly fun and breezy read, dripping with all the trappings of the Gothic novel. Shapeshifting, bloodletting, monstrous bats, and seduction buzz around the book. If you’ve only seen/read modern vampires, this is a must.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – L. Frank Baum (Kindle Store)
You’ve seen the movie, and your history teacher probably told you it was an allegory about gold or something, but it remains a readable, highly imaginative work a century after its publication.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales – Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm (Project Gutenberg)
Whatever you think you know about these stories is probably wrong. They are far, far stranger than you’d expect. We didn’t put this in the children’s books section of this list for a reason.
The Chessmen of Mars - Edgar Rice Burroughs (Kindle Store)
There are so, so many good free Rice Burroughs books in the public domain that it’s tough to know where to begin; the Tarzan author’s Chessmen of Mars is a good place to start. Though it falls in the middle of a longer series, previous reading is optional, and how can you beat a premise like “Held captive by grotesque bodiless heads, Princess Tara of Helium was rescued by a warrior who dared not reveal his name. But escape led the daughter of the Warlord of Mars into even more loathesome peril — as the prize in a bloody game of living chess”?
The Works of Edgar Allan Poe – Volume 2 (Kindle Store)
There are five collected volumes of Poe available for free on Amazon, but the second volume stands out from the rest for containing many works which would later be called the beginning of science fiction. It also contains “A Descent Into the Maelstrom,” whose strange structure is sometimes heralded as the beginning of post-modernism. Clearly, an author ahead of his time.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Edward Gibbon (Kindle Store)
The entirety of Edward Gibbon’s sprawling, epic history is available for free download. Shocking in its time for its critical portrayal of early Christianity and its rather favorable take on “paganism,” the book is as important for its crisp prose as for its rigorous use of primary sources.
The Life of Abraham Lincoln – Henry Ketcham (Kindle Store)
There’s no shortage of biographies of Abraham Lincoln, but how many were written by a general in the Union army? There’s this one, and and that’s probably all you need.
On War – Carl von Clausewitz (Kindle Store)
Part historical examination, part military strategy and philosophy book, this tome by a 19th-century Prussian officer continues to be read by generals and even businessmen to this day because of its incisive theoretical nature. Though the book refers primarily to wars between the militaries of established states, its lessons still apply to nuclear warfare and confrontations with terrorists.
The Book of the Dead – Sir E. A. (Erner Alfred) Wallis Budge (Kindle Store)
An early translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Mummification is only the beginning. Also, later spiritualists drew from this work for their crack-pot beliefs, so you’ll earn some spooky points by owning it.
Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft – Sir Walter Scott (Kindle Store)
A collection of reports and trials concerning witches and the paranormal. At one time considered to be the fore-most scientific discourse on the subject, and now a relic of a lost world view.
Slave Narratives: a Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves Maryland Narratives - The Works Project Association (Kindle Store)
One of the few sources that allows former American slaves to speak with their own words. They tell a different story of this country’s horrific practice of slavery than you got in your grade-school social studies book.
The History of the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides
One of the earliest histories, this is a record of the ancient war that reshaped the Greek world written by a general that shaped the conflict.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (iBooks)
Forget Dr. House. Sherlock Holmes stops criminals, great and small, with the power of deductive reasoning and an encyclopedic memory. Also, he’s a coke fiend. Love it!
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (iBooks)
Though the original is notably lacking in zombies, it remains a great read. Even if you think that 19th century social commentary sounds like a snoozefest, you will be gripped by the wit and sharpness of this tale of marriageable English sisters, even if you don’t want to admit it.
Moby Dick – Herman Melville (iBooks)
The biggest metaphor about whaling ever written. It nearly ruined Melville in his lifetime, but was later recognized as a great work of American fiction.
Siddartha – Herman Hesse (Project Gutenberg)
Based on the life of The Buddha of Enlightenment, Hesse’s novel follows the journey of a young man through life on a quest for enlightenment. Short and thought provoking, it’s good for reading during a commute.
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (Project Gutenberg)
One man’s hopeless quest for greatness, and the origin of my favorite Scrabble world: Quixotic.
Ulysses – James Joyce (Project Gutenberg)
A challenging, early experimental novel. Some maintain that if you skip every other word, it makes as much sense as if you read it straight through.
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott (Project Gutenberg)
A coming of age story set against a vibrant background in Victorian America. Engaging and insightful to this day.
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Project Gutenberg)
Russian novels are hard to describe, since they typically twist and turn so much that you end up far, far away from your starting point. Here, a man wrestles with his guilt, but that’s just scratching the surface.
The Art of War – Sun Tzu (Project Gutenberg)
Used by everyone from Patton to CEOs to plan their strategy. Even if Sun Tzu’s work has no bearing on your life or your career, you can terrify your opponents by spouting off quotations from it.
Symbolic Logic – Lewis Carroll (Kindle Store)
Taking off his Mad Hatter hat and putting on his Math Hat, Carroll displays his prowess as a theoretical mathematician as well as his penchant for word play.
The Kama Sutra (darn, no pictures) (iBooks)
Impress potential mate with erotic instructions in verse. Don’t see the lack of illustrations as a detriment; think of it as a challenge.
Economic Report of the President (Kindle Store)
They’ll be screaming about it in Washington until 2012. But how many of them do you think have actually read it?
The Prince – Machiavelli (Kindle Store)
The original how-to on running a modern nation with guile and any dirty tricks that spring to mind. He really put the “Machiavelli” in “Machiavellian!”
Dream Psychology – Sigmund Freud (iBooks)
Much of what Freud has said is no longer widely accepted, and should be taken with a grain of salt. But this pioneering work has much to offer those interested in the theories that shaped modern psychology.
Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary (Kindle Store)
Certainly out of date in the factual sense, but Voltaire’s opinions on philosophical issues are still fascinating.
Republic – Plato (Kindle Store) (Kindle Store)
Certainly one of the most challenging works in this list, Plato’s work examines the nature of law and what is “just.” This work has gone on to shape many modern conceptions of politics, morality, and nations.
Civil Disobedience – Henry David Thoreau (Kindle Store)
Before Walden, Thoreau literally wrote the book on protesting, and posited the now oft-forgotten central concept of protesting; that you must accept the consequences of disobeying an unjust law.
Common Sense – Thomas Paine (Kindle Store)
A fomenting work of the American revolution, Paine’s pamphlet argued for freedom from Britain in a way that was understandable to the common folk. The result was an instant success, and no doubt played a part in uniting the yet-unborn nation.
Thus Spake Zarathustra – Friedrich Nietzsche (Kindle Store)
The downside of having an eBook of Nietzsche is that it’s harder to impress people at a coffee shop with it. The plus side is that you might actually read it.
Mathematical Prose Fiction
Flatland – Edwin Abott Abott (Kindle Store)
You might think that a book written from a member of a two-dimensional universe wouldn’t have much to say on geometry or social structure, but you would be completely wrong. This book does all that, and more, without ever being a chore to read.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll (Project Gutenberg)
A girl falls into a magical, mostly malevolent world. Thankfully she is not accosted by CG drudgery, nor Tim Burton wearing Johnny Depp’s skin like a mask.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain (iBooks)
Mark Twain’s classic of early American boyhood, and a portrait of the South. Read it before they replace all references to bigotry and slavery with sunshine and candy.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter (Project Gutenberg)
No childhood is complete without the classic stories of Beatrix Potter. Though it is probably worth it to spring for the illustrated version, as Potter’s paintings are as indelible as her stories.
The Odyssey – Homer (iBooks)
The Trojan War is over, and now the great hero Odysseus must find his way home after angering the Gods. Watch as this clever, debonair hero copulates his way across the mythological Greek landscape trying to return home to his family.
The Aeneid – Virgil (Project Gutenberg)
The voyage of Aeneas, who endures great conflict and eventually leads to the founding of Rome. An enthralling work, that still entertains.
Beowulf (Project Gutenberg)
A town is threatened by a terrible monster, who you gonna call? Beowulf. Forget that awful movie, and bask in the glory of a hero that could tear a monster’s arm off and follow that up with an epic poem about it.
The Canterbury Tales – Geoffery Chaucer (iBooks)
You could not be blamed for thinking that an epic poem written by a medieval monk would be dry reading, but there are few things more ribald than The Millers Tale. Surprise yourself with this one.
Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman (Project Gutenberg)
If you don’t like poetry, then you owe it to yourself to read this, Whitman’s masterpiece. In this groundbreaking work, Whitman covers much of human life and celebrates life to the fullest.
Eirik The Red’s Saga (Project Gutenberg)
One of the great Viking sagas, chronicling the settlement of both Greenland and, more significantly, North America hundreds of years before Columbus.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare – William Shakespeare (Project Gutenberg)
Impress friends and enemies alike with your new-found knowledge of the Bard’s famous lines. No, don’t worry about understanding them, you just need to say them.
The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde (Project Gutenberg)
Notable not only for being written by Wilde, great wit of his generation, but also for being a genuinely funny play.
The Oedipus Trilogy – Sophoclese (Project Gutenberg)
The bit were Oedipus sleeps with his mother and kills his father is the sanest part of this trilogy of Greek plays. It’s a wild ride.
Faust – Johan Goethe (Kindle Store)
Widely regarded as one of the greatest written works, and certainly one of the best pieces of German literature, Goethe tells the story of a man who sells his soul to the Devil, and the fate that befalls him afterward. A moving, engaging, and philosophical work.
Doctor Faustus – Christopher Marlowe (Project Gutenberg)
Another take on the story of Faust, who sells his soul for all the pleasures and wisdom of the world. But Marlowe adds a fascinating demonic character, who steals the show, and is so well written as to rival his contemporaries — which included Shakespeare.
(image via Amelia-Jane)
Update: Geekosystem reader Marilyn directs our attention to http://kindleclassics.blogspot.com/, which provides more in-depth summaries of and links to classic literature available on the Kindle.
Robert Quigley contributed research.