Top 40 best free ebooks

June 20, 2011

Top 40 best free ebooksFree ebooks — there are millions of them, so we’ve done the hard job of listing what we think are the 40 of the greatest books ever written, now available as free e-books.
They’re the most interesting and the most entertaining books, the kind that reward your attention.
The hardest part isn’t finding the books — but finding the time to read them!

Amazon maintains a good list of “free e-book collections” around the web. (“We wanted to make it easier to find these collections,” Amazon explains, “which today represent nearly 2 million titles.”) There’s over 2.5 million free titles at archive.org, and another million at openlibrary.org. And Amazon also has their own list for Kindle owners of books which are “temporarily free” as part of a limited-time promotional offer. But one of my favorite sites is Project Gutenberg, which was one of the first sites offering free e-books. (They produced their first free e-book back in the early 1970s!) And don’t forget that there’s also free audiobooks read by volunteers that are available at LibriVox.org.
So if you visited all of these sites offering free e-books, which books should you download? Here’s our list of recommendations — the 40 best free e-books of all time.
Fiction
Tarzan of the Apes
It inspired dozens of movies, but it started with this classic adventure by Edgar Rice Burroughs. He may be the ultimate “noble savage”, a boy adopted by an ape family after his parents are killed in the jungles of Africa. It’s the first book in the series, telling how Tarzan grapples with his humanity. Ultimately he meets a woman named Jane in a party of settlers, and eventually he even travels to America to try to find her!

Burroughs continued writing new novels about the adventures of Tarzan, including:

Tarzan of the Apes color book cover illustration
Heart of Darkness
It’s the original “Apocalypse Now,” the 1902 novella about a boat captain who’s sent to recover an ivory trader in Africa named Kurtz. The jungle is dark, but there’s also the human conflicts between the traders and the natives – and then there’s the depravity of Kurtz himself. Kurtz sinks into corruption, sets himself up as a god, and grapples with whether to “civilize” the native populations – or destroy them. It’s a powerful symbol of the evils that came with western colonization, leading to Kurtz’s famous last words: “The horror! The horror!”
History
An Autobiography of Buffalo Bill
The great showman of the Wild West describes his own youthful adventures, providing a fascinating memoir about growing up on the American frontier. He remembers watching the wagon trains as they rolled through Kansas, and meeting real-life wandering cowboys who inspired his own career as both a frontier hunter and a military scout.
Another amazing biography of his life, Last of the Great Scouts, was published in 1899. It’s attributed to his sister, though her ghost writer is believed to be Chicago newspaper columnist Bert Leston Taylor
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
America’s wittiest founding father, Benjamin Franklin started writing this book before the American Revolution in 1776, and finished it nearly 20 years later (before his death at age 84). Franklin remembers coming to Philadelphia in 1723 as a runaway teenaged apprentice – and then making his way in the world by combining intelligence with hard work and a lifelong commitment to learning. It’s considered an important historical document, but it’s also a fascinating read!
The Journals of Lewis and Clark
It’s like a Twitter feed from 1804. Both Meriwether Lewis and Williams Clark made regular journal entries as they explored the unknown territory in America’s “Louisiana Purchase” (and the wilderness beyond). They meet settlers on what’s basically the edge of civilization as they know it, in what later became the states of Missouri and Kansas. And then cross-over into the great unknown, trying to understand indigenous native Americans and confronting a vast American wilderness.
Two Years Before the Mast
Imagine if you’d visited California fifteen years before the great Gold Rush had transformed everything. Los Angeles is a sleepy chaparral where the sailors collect cowhides to ship to the east coast, reports Richard Henry Dana, who also visits early California cities like San Francisco and Santa Barbara. It’s an exciting true-life adventure story, written by a Harvard graduate who’d decided to try life at sea. It’s essentially a blog from 1834, offering a fascinating glimpse at a sailor’s life. And there’s also some very funny personal anecdotes, like the eventual fate of a lazy first mate, and the time settlers beached a shark in San Diego, and then tried to stop it from flopping its way back into the ocean!
Humor
Roughing It
Mark Twain made a living delivering funny lectures, and his first major success was a travelogue about a trip through Europe. But he followed that with a very funny autobiography about how he arrived in the American west as a young man. He’d traveled by stagecoach at the age of 26, packed tightly into the back along with luggage and shifting sacks of mail. Eventually he arrives in the Nevada territory (where his brother had received a government position), and his biography remembers stories about outlaws, sheriffs, and life on the American frontier. It’s both a history book and a humor book – and it’s a story that’s unforgettable.
My Man Jeeves
It’s a collection of delightful short stories by P.G. Wodehouse about Bertie Wooster (and some other young members of Britain’s high society). Inevitably the “idle rich” get into tricky situations, and they’re only saved by the wise intervention of the clever butler, Jeeves. The characters are endearing and the stories are well-constructed, but it’s ultimately the writing style of P.G. Wodehouse that brings out the stories’ humor. P.G. Wodehouse lived to be 93 years old, but his characters lasted beyond his lifetime, as even new generations reading e-books are continuing to discover Bertie and Jeeves.
Three Men in a Boat
This book reads like a stand-up comedy monologue, with witty asides about hypochondria, laziness, and those weather forecasters who never get it right. Three British dandies decide to try recreational boat trips down the Thames River, and the book eulogizes the easy life while laughing at the men who try to live it. Surprisingly, this book was written in 1889, but nearly all of its humorous observations are still just as relevant — and just as funny –today.
Mystery
Secret Adversary
Agatha Christie remains the best-selling authors of all time (according to the Guinness Book of World Records), selling nearly 4 billion copies of her mystery novels — some of which are now available as free e-books. Secret Adversary opens on a sinking ship, where a young woman is suddenly handed an important document to deliver by a mysterious stranger. And the Mysterious Affair at Styles offers another classic Christie plot line, with a grand British manor populated by an eccentric cast of characters — and an intriguingly-complicated quest to determine whodunnit.
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes
He’s the most famous fictional detective ever, and his original mystery stories are a surprisingly fun read. Holmes’ admiring companion, Dr. Watson, recounts all the endearing quirks of the brilliant (and strangely observant) detective-for-hire, and together they investigate what turn out to be some very bizarre Victorian-era crimes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ultimately penned four novel-length adventures for Holmes:
Sherlock Holmes illustration
But he also left behind some very entertaining (and fast-paced) collections of short stories. Doyle eventually wrote a story where Holmes gives his life to destroy his arch enemy Moriarty — but was forced by popular to write another series of stories where Holmes ultimately returns (called The Return of Sherlock Holmes). Though many of the stories were originally published individually the British magazine called the Strand, the collections come together to create a very satisfying whole — for example, the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, which simply collects all the wonderful Holmes short stories published between 1892 and 1893.
Essays
The Art of War
It may be the oldest book that you’ll ever read, written in the 6th century B.C., but it’s still consider a classic textbook on military strategy. And often its advice is about avoiding combat altogether by outsmarting your opponent in advance. You can almost feel yourself getting more clever as you read its practical tactical advice. It’s a heady mixture of strategy and intuition that can really teach you a lot about human nature.
Oscar Wilde: The Soul of Man
He was one of the wittiest authors in the history of literature, but by 1891 he’d converted to anarchism. There’s hints of this in “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” the novel in which a British gentleman decides to give himself over to hedonism — but in The Soul of Man, Wilde lays it all out. In perfect intellectual arguments, he analyzes society itself, making the arguments for and against both the current and ideal systems of government.
And Project Gutenberg also offers a version of the book which opens with Miscellaneous Aphorisms — a vast collection of some of Wilde’s wisest observations, with more than 18,000 words that are insightful, philosophical, and funny.
Science Fiction
The Time Machine
It’s become a “steampunk” classic – the story of a tinkering gentleman in Victorian England who build a mechanical device that can hurtle him 800,000 years into the future. Unfortunately, it’s a dark future populated with primitive barbarians named “Morlocks” — while the leisure class isolates themselves in work-free splendor, their elegant luxuries provided by their own futuristic machines.
The Thing in the Attic
Author James Blish was American science fiction writer and literary critic, who had the distinction of writing the very first Star Trek novel in 1970 (and 11 short story collections adapted from the TV episodes.) But he’d build his fame in the 1950s, writing a disturbing four-part series called The Seedling Stars. Genetically-modified humans have been used to colonize the harsh climates of distant planets, and in the second book of the series Blish describes a jungle planet which banishes its monkey-human intellectuals for the crime of heresy. Forced to fight dinosaur-like creatures, they eventually come face to face with a god-like race of superior beings. Book One in the series was “The Seeding Project” — but book two — The Thing in the Attic — is available for free at Project Gutenberg.
The Crystal Crypt
Philip K. Dick was one of the most influential modern science fiction writers, writing the original novels behind movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report. Yet amazingly, 11 of his books have fallen into the public domain, and they’re now available at Project Gutenberg, including The Crystal Crypt. All the characters in this story are martians, and its backdrop is their war with the planet earth. But as one ship leaves the planet, the martian police search for the spies who destroyed one of their cities. Later a businessman on the inter-planetary flight discovers the double-agents himself — and their amazing city-altering technology which threatens to tilt the whole balance of power between the planets.
There’s 10 other Philip K. Dick e-books available at Project Gutenberg:
War of the Worlds
Martians come to earth, hell-bent on conquering it, blasting lasers from their enormous mechanical machines as they prowl across the planet. The book is divided into two sections — “The Coming of the Martians” and “The Earth under the Martians” — and there’s a lot of action as the narrator travels the countryside, seeing tableaus of martian conquest while he searches for his wife.
Fantasy
The Wind in the Willows
Kenneth Grahame modeled the character of Mr. Toad on his own over-enthusiastic son, and it’s a delightful moment when his peaceful animal kingdom is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of the motor car. This is a surprisingly literary classic, and its admirers include Winnie-the-Pooh creator A.A. Milne, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, and even Pink Floyd (who took the title of one chapter as the name of their debut album — the piper at the gates of dawn.) Milne’s son (Christopher) remembers that the chapter always moved his mother, which she’d “read to me again and again with always, towards the end, the catch in the voice and the long pause to find her handkerchief and blow her nose.” And of course, Disneyland ultimately based “Mr. Toad’s Wild Road” on the characters in this book.
The Jungle Book
As animals stalk the night, a human baby is adopted by a family of wolves. He receives lessons in the ways of the animals from both Bagheera the Panther and Baloo the Bear, but he must one day confront the proud tiger who’s determined to eat him. Rudyard Kipling lived in India as a boy, and though his childhood was reportedly unhappy, he imagined a different upbringing which was absolutely wonderful. In Walt Disney’s cartoon adaptation, the jungle animals are singing hipsters, but the original novel lets the creatures keep their grand mystery and even an implied nobility.
There’s three Mowgli stories in The Second Jungle Book, each one giving a new glimpse of animals’ society. But there’s also five more Mowgli stories in “The Second Jungle Book” — along with more stories about animals and their own intriguing adventures.
The Wizard of Oz
It’s not just the story of Dorothy and the yellow-brick road. Frank L. Baum wrote an entire series of 14 fantastic books, creating new adventures for each of his famous imaginative characters. There’s a sequel called Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz,” as well as The Scarecrow of Oz and The Tin Woodman of Oz. Even Glinda of Oz gets her own book, plus new characters like Ozma of Oz and The Patchwork Girl. Baum’s original goal was to update the tone of Grimm’s fairy tales, making stories which were more entertaining for children (and less weighted with preachy lessons about the punishment of the wicked). And he ultimately created a vast society of remarkable characters, a turning point for fantasy literature which left behind a legacy of some very fun books.
Magic of Oz Book color book cover illustration
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