Friday, September 10, 2010

The Problems with Free Books

This morning, my mother emailed me a thoroughly amusing article called "The Trouble with Google Books." The article deals with the errors and problems that Google books has, specifically with metadata (i.e. the data that allows you to find the book you are looking for, e.g. publication date, author, etc). Some of the pieces are particularly hilarious, such as attributing a book an the Mosiac Web browser to Sigmund Freud's distinguished co-authorship [1]. My biggest problem with google books was that it always omitted exactly those pages of a book that I needed most when I looked something up because some other enterprising classicist had checked it out of the library before I got there [2].

Although I have always been a massive lover of cheap books and used books (which is the only way I could have amassed the massive collection of books around my house and in boxes in the garage), receiving a Kindle (see my previous blogpost) I have become a zealot for free electronic books. Part of the time while Cerinthus was visiting, I stupidly spent showing him the wonders of ACLS Humanities E-Book Archive (because he still has access to our college's server). It is incredible. Although one can only download PDF pages in three pages bursts, there are some fabulous academic texts on every subject from archaeoastronomy to modern urban planning. If one compiles the books oneself, they're free (provided, of course, access to said archive through school or an academic institution). I also have spent a lot of time searching for books, especially classics books and found a number of different places (to many of which I link on Platonic Psychology). Some interesting ones are as follows:
  • Project Gutenberg: An archive of out of print books and audiobooks. Has a pretty awesome variety of formats available, including MOBI documents for the kindle. They are now also compiling audiobooks, as well as adding works in their original languages, such as Greek and Latin (as well as German, French, etc)
  • Internet Archive: Very much like Project Gutenberg, this archive includes a variety of out of print books in many different formats, including the Sanskrit Grammar that I included in my blogpost last night.
  • Textkit: A selections of out of print materials for teaching Classical Greek and Latin.
  • Free Books from Amazon: this is all in kindle format (but can be read with free kindle reading apps), but it includes out of print books, as well as government documents like the U.S. Budget, and a number of new studies on digital media and learning by MIT, like this one.
There are some more but this is a start and I would love to hear about more I have not found yet.

Harping on my education theme, again (sorry!), I think cheap used books and free ebooks are awesome. I believe, most certainly, that authors and the institutions who aid in dissemination their work should be paid and that they provide a vital service for society. However, the library near my house has a book section only twice the size of my bedroom. Thus far, I found no classics texts there I am interested in reading. The books are simply too expensive for a small local library. It seems to me that libraries are one of the great places that one can supplement or design their own education. It makes no sense that only university libraries have the necessary academic texts when cities and towns without universities are the ones could most use an extensive library. So I think that used book sites and free ebooks are great because they provide access to a whole range of materials not otherwise available.

  1. This reminded me of when I asked a group of my SAT kids what they knew about Charles Dickens' writing, and I got three blank stares and a girl who told me that she had only read half of Alice in Wonderland and did not remember it very well. I was also shocked to learn that out of a 13 person class, not one person knew who Adam Smith was. On the other hand, every one of them can work a smartphone, an art which I have not yet mastered.
  2. My junior year this was a particularly pernicious trend, which prevented me from ever getting a chance to read Genres in Dialogue for my Phaedrus paper. Luckily, I received a copy for my last birthday and I am enjoying it thoroughly.

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