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Social Capital: The Inventor of the e-Book

In Ray Bradbury’s 1953 futuristic classic, Fahrenheit 451, fireman Guy Montague discovers that the only safe place for a book is in the minds of its readers. Thankfully, Mark Hart has a different vision of the future. Since 1971, Hart has been building Project Gutenberg, the first and largest free e-book library in the world. As the inventor of the e-book, Hart has been on a selfless quest to safeguard our greatest literature, and improve lives by making it available to everyone.

In Ray Bradbury’s 1953 futuristic classic, Fahrenheit 451, fireman Guy Montague discovers that the only safe place for a book is in the minds of its readers. Thankfully, Mark Hart has a different vision of the future. Since 1971, Hart has been building Project Gutenberg, the first and largest free e-book library in the world. As the inventor of the e-book, Hart has been on a selfless quest to safeguard our greatest literature, and improve lives by making it available to everyone. His Bradburian vision: that “Everyone in the world, or even not in this world (given satellite transmission) can have a copy of a book.” Featuring a collection of some 10,000 e-books, his library’s archives boast everything from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Zane Grey. And it’s quietly growing at a rate of 400 books a month. Though you wouldn’t guess by its low-tech look (donation-driven; no ads!), the site dishes out an estimated one million downloads a month. What’s the appeal?

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Price and convenience, to start. Just think: The complete works of William Shakespeare will cost you a day’s wage at your local Borders bookstore. Amazon.com is cheap, but it doesn’t beat free, especially after shipping. The library? Sure, if you want to leave the house. Enter Project Gutenberg: Free e-books at the click of a button. Every one of them electronically searchable. Better yet, for those too lazy to click through A Midsummer Night’s Dream with their mouse, the site offers Radio Gutenberg, consisting of some 400 books read out loud by a computer. (You haven’t lived until you’ve listened to the digitally recited poems of Edgar Allen Poe.)

Step outside the capitalist worldview though, and it’s clear that cheap and easy books are just fringe benefits. The real passion driving this organization is the beauty of the utopian vision: infinite storage and universal accessibility. Sharing in that passion is a small army of folks making it possible. At any given time, some 2,000 volunteers – including contributors, typesetters, copy editors, and site managers – are working together to create and store over ten books a day. And there’s no finicky committee selecting the books; anything in the public domain is fair game. The result is a reading list chock-full of canonized classics and little-known gems. Yesterday, for instance, marked 11 new additions, including The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and The Seven Little Sisters Who Live on the Round Ball That Floats in the Air (I’ve never heard of it, either).

Surprisingly, the bookworms behind Project Gutenberg manage to stay current, even customer friendly; at the top of News & Events is a post reading, “Yes, we have Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days in English, in a Junior Edition, in Dutch, as well as the original French” (apparently in answer to Disney’s just released film version starring Jackie Chan). While most of the collection is made up of public domain classics (books that have been around long enough to lose their copyright) some authors have released more recent work. And, with more and more authors publishing their work into the electronic ether, Project Gutenberg is sure to become timelier as the future of publishing unfolds. Best of all, should Bradbury’s book-burning vision of the future ever come to pass (or a nuclear holocaust send us back to the stone age), the library’s archives are backed up on all seven continents. (What? No archive on Mars?) Which means there’s even a shack somewhere in Antarctica safekeeping our greatest works of literature. Montague would be proud.

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