Andromeda: Obituary for an ebook pioneer and free reading from the 1910s

The death of Steve Jobs was heavily covered in the press. The same week he was being remembered, while researching the subject of ebooks, I discovered that another digital pioneer had recently died – with substantially less fanfare.

Michael Stern Hart (1947 – September 6, 2011) was the founder of Project Gutenberg and is credited with inventing the ebook, in 1971. Perhaps one reason we know his name less well is that his goal was never to make money with snazzy brandname products, but rather to make literature as free and available as air.

As a student at the University of Illinois in the early 1970s, Hart was given access to a powerful mainframe computer, with computer time valued at $100 million. According to a New York Times obituary, Hart tried to think of a project worthy of that power and conceived of sharing information – a concept distinct from data processing.

According to the New York Times: “After attending a July 4 fireworks display, (Hart) stopped in at a grocery store and received, with his purchase, a copy of the Declaration of Independence printed on parchment. He typed the text, intending to send it as an e-mail to the users of Arpanet, the government-sponsored precursor to today’s Internet, but was dissuaded by a colleague who warned that the message would crash the system. Instead, he posted a notice that the text could be downloaded, and Project Gutenberg was born.”

(A single mass-distributed text document crashing an entire system – I love that concept!)

Over the next decade, Hart typed the Constitution, the King James Bible, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into the database. To consider how far we’ve come in this digital age – and how much we take for granted – consider that it took until 1997 for Hart to create the first 313 ebooks for Project Gutenberg. Today, 36,000 books are available free at the site, not counting the thousands of books available for free at partner sites. Hart was a visionary, and it took the rest of the world a few decades to catch up with his vision.

My own take on this subject – as a person who straddles the line between Luddite and pragmatist – is that I’ve gotten accustomed to reading from a Kindle only in the last six months. My children each received Kindle e-readers as a gift last year, from an uncle. They still haven’t taken to the devices, but I tried one with limited interest. Then, about two months ago, I started on a new reading project I call “Reading the Century.” I’ve started reading one American novel per publication year, in more or less chronological order, from 1911 forward, with an emphasis on books that shaped or reflected the culture of the time, whether or not they have proved longlasting (and it’s fascinating to see which books have indeed lasted, and why).

The books I’ve read so far are: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911); Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912); O, Pioneers! by Willa Cather (1913); The Eyes of the World by Harold Bell Wright (1914—a megabestseller of the time now entirely forgotten, for very good reason); Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915); Chicago, poems by Carl Sandburg (1916, not a novel but an exception I made for a very lackluster publishing year); The Job by Sinclair Lewis (1917—a much better mostly-forgotten book, about a working girl in New York City) and The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (1918, delightful).

Two things hit home from the very start of this idiosyncratic project: One, there weren’t very many novels published in the 1910s compared to now. Especially when one limits readings to American authors, the pickings are slim until about the 1930s, when American literature exploded. In some years, I was forced to choose between mostly forgotten books – and in so doing, found my way into reading amazing, previously overlooked gems, like Herland, an overtly political, feminist utopian novel from 1915, in which three male adventurers discover a hidden Amazonian society in which women have asexually reproduced for two millennia and managed to create a fertile and happy world, completely without men. The contrast between that book and the awkwardly written, chest-thumping Princess of Mars (to be released as a major movie under the title John Carter this summer, by the way) was extraordinary and revealing.

The second thing I realized picking my way through the 1910s was that many books were tricky to find– unless one settled on reading them in ebook form, in which case they were instantly delivered and absolutely free. “Now” and “free” are hard to ignore. So far, I’ve read five of my eight “Century of Reading” books in digital form.

It’s one thing to weigh the prospects of reading a recently published physical book (which I prefer) or its ebook counterpart. It’s another thing to dig into our American past and realize some books from a century ago could have been lost entirely if not for belated reprinting (Herland, which first appeared in serial magazine format, didn’t appear in book form until the 1970s) or translation into digital format by volunteers.

For the first time in my reading life, I feel truly grateful for ebooks. With that thought in mind, a belated cheers to Michael Hart, a largely unsung visionary, who realized that computers and literature might one day go hand-in-hand.

2 thoughts on “Andromeda: Obituary for an ebook pioneer and free reading from the 1910s”

  1. I bought a Sony e-reader 3 years ago because my graduate classes required downloading lots of material from the web, and the cost of ink cartridges threatened to bankrupt me. At that time the e-reader accommodated more formats than the Kindle or the Nook.
    Now I find it a great resource as I do historical research for a novel. Project Gutenberg, Google Books and other ebook projects are making it possible to access books that are long out of print.
    Personally, I prefer a physical book in which I can make notes (and which don't require battery charging), but I appreciate the range of books that are now available to me.

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