The High Cost of Free

Why you might need to pay for classic ebooks

Free Books

The Internet has more free stuff than the US Department of Health and Human Services. And it’s not just the illegal things you find on torrent web sites. There is enough free and legal intellectual property available online to keep you busy for centuries. And I’m just counting the time needed to search for the stuff through Google.

The problem is that free doesn’t always mean good. I have a pair of garden sheers that I’ll give you for free. They make a great garage wall decoration, assuming you have a metal-and-rust motif. And that’s how it is with much of the content on the Web, especially when it comes to classic books.

There are some reputable sites feeding up e-content from out-of-copyright authors like Jane Austen and Mark Twain. And while the content is readily available, it’s not always in a form that is conducive to serious reading and study. Consider, as an example, The Analects of Confucius, the Well-Read Man Project book that I finished reading a few days ago. My copy is a free ebook that I downloaded from a reputable supplier of electronic classic books. The content was based on the 1910 English translation by Chinese literature expert James Legge. It had a finger-clickable table of contents, as well as all of the standard ebook bells and whistles. But it was also chock full of spelling and punctuation mistakes made during its manual retyping, HTML artifacts left over from some automated conversion process, and a quarter-page advertisement for the transcriber’s web site at the end of each chapter. Sure, it was free, but it wasn’t cheap (with my apologies to Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

For the reading project, I downloaded sample after sample of free ebooks to find usable copies that wouldn’t leave me wondering if I had read the actual book. It was a more difficult endeavor than I expected. While pretty much every classic book in my collection could be found on the Google Books web site, they were mostly scans of physical books from the Harvard Library, stored as PDFs, and were useless for tablet-style highlighting and note-taking. Other volumes could be had in the standardized EPUB format, but suffered some of the same defects as The Analects.

In the end, I opted to purchase copies of some classic works, including The Epic of Gilgamsh, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, and the play The Misanthrope. While it cost me some money, it was much cheaper than the time I would have wasted on the so-called free versions.

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