Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

February 9th, 2008:

The Revenge of the Classics

I've lived such an overstuffed life for so many years that I'd almost forgotten a psychology that was a very big part of my youth: Sniffing around for “just something to read.” I'm a very deliberate reader these days because I don't have a lot of completely uncommitted time. I have a reading buffer of 50-100 books on hand here, all of which were chosen because they touch on one of my interests or another. (My library as a whole contains somewhere around 2500 books, down from 3000 before we left Arizona.) I never have to cast about at random for just something to read.

For many people, reading is an even bigger part of their lives, believe it or not. (Maybe fewer than we'd like, but they're out there.) These people are driving the ebook industry right now, and I've noticed a phenomenon few others have commented on: the explosion of interest in out-of-copyright books by people who might not have been slobbering Dickens or Jane Austen fans in the past. At numerous sites online, people are uploading ebook versions of many classic texts. I follow Mobileread, which now has about 3,800 free ebooks online for download, the bulk of them pre-1923 works, some well-known (they have Dickens' complete works now) and some pretty obscure, like the Scottish Psalter of 1650. Mobileread is interesting because people are creating versions in the popular small-screen ebook reader formats like Ebookwise, MobiPocket and BBeB rather than raw text—nor formats used primarily on PCs, like PDF and MS Reader.

I continue to boggle at people reading Thackeray on their cellphones, but boggle or no boggle, it's being done. The classics are coming back. I can't entirely explain it, but I have some hunches:

  • Many of these ebook editions are beautifully done. The Dickens canon is the work of one man named Harry in the UK, and they include some of the nice old 19th Century woodcut illustrations plus color covers where those were available. (Oliver Twist, yes. Martin Chuzzlewit, no.) They are not shot full of OCR errors and gaps like some of the stuff I've downloaded from other places, including the venerable Project Gutenberg.
  • They are free and they are easy to get. There are no hurdles to jump, nothing to sign up for, no money to lay out, and no DRM to drop sand in the gears of the experience.
  • There are no ethical issues involved in obtaining them or passing them on. I still think people are basically honest, and they do consider the rights of copyright holders.
  • They're classics because they have withstood the test of time. They're good.

The classics have always been available in bookstores, of course, at prices comparable to those of newly published books. But if you're shopping for something to read on the train going in to work because it's a dead hour coming and going, it's hard to beat free, especially if free is easy and involves no pokes from the conscience.

What we're seeing here might as well be called open-source literature. It's being done by volunteer labor, including people who are drawing new artwork and contributing it without copyright claims. It's significant because people writing new ebooks have to take into account that the total available number of reader-hours in the audience is finite, and the friction involved in obtaining and reading the classics is now approaching zero. Like Linux, it will take a while yet for the well-formatted library of classic ebooks to mature, but like Linux, they will eventually become a competitive force to reckon with.

And wow, dare we hope that the premodern will put a fat boot up the ass of the postmodern? A lot of those “dead white males” must be grinning about now.