- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Things are going downhill for people who want to read literature. With the quality of schooling falling, people read less and worse. Bookstores often don’t stock what were once regarded as classics.

Washington is presumably America’s best-educated city. Yet when I went to Border’s at Pentagon City, to find a copy of “The Three Musketeers” in French, I came up dry. The foreign-language section was tiny. By contrast the self-help section was huge.

Try to find Vegetius or, say, Rudyard Kipling’s “Under the Deodars.” A lot of fine and important books aren’t in print. Libraries increasingly go to low-end recent literature. In Arlington, hardly a cultural backwater, I have frequently been unable to find older books that I wanted.

Enter the Web. Specifically, Project Gutenberg, or PG as it is widely known by those unfamiliar with the county. This altogether praiseworthy undertaking makes available online huge numbers of books in the public domain. This doesn’t include anything you’ve seen reviewed, but it does include many worthwhile books written long ago enough not to be copyrighted.

What does PG charge for downloads? It doesn’t. They’re free. That sure beats $25 a pop for cheap hardbacks at B&N.; PG is something that I have always wanted: an internationally available lending library, available from anywhere, that doesn’t charge fines for late books. You don’t return downloads.

PG is important for several reasons. One is that it offers a better chance of practical preservation for books that otherwise would be lost. If a book is out of print, and public libraries don’t have it, then for practical purposes it doesn’t exist. Sure, the Library of Congress probably has it. But most people don’t live inside the Beltway.

How do you read the books? Well, you can read them on-screen, which would make any sensible person give up reading. Or you can print them out, almost as bad. Or you can take PG’s advice and use something like the REB1100 electronic-book reader from RCA.

It’s a gadget the size of a book with a screen and a couple of buttons to turn the pages. The REB1100, says its site, holds about 20 books in 8 megabytes of storage. RCA says you get 20 to 40 hours of use per battery charge. Other companies make similar devices.

Electronic readers have not been big commercial successes. The reasons are debatable. One is they are not marketed as ways to read real books from Project Gutenberg, but rather to get you to pay high prices to download best sellers.

But it’s better to download a book now than spend two months trying to find it, and probably better than paying $50, If you happen to be in Cambodia or Fiji, the alternative is nothing at all.

Project Gutenberg is a splendid idea: Putting everything online that doesn’t belong to anybody in particular to make it available to everyone everywhere.

It doesn’t cost much. Universities can afford to do a lot of it. I think Cornell University puts all decisions of the Supreme Court online. Somebody ought to buy out the Oxford English Dictionary and let anyone use it online. If a symphony in a good performance is in the public domain, why not put it online? People could burn it onto a CD for 50 cents instead of paying $17 for an indistinguishable shrink-wrapped version.

We’re headed that way, but in fits and starts. Why not do it right?

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