By Rob Suggs

So many public domain e-texts, so little time—and guidance. That there’s the rub.

Ever had this happen? You spot an intriguing title in the Gutenberg feed, or on some other free text site. New e-reader food? Maybe. What’s the book about? Like all public domain texts, it dates before the Great Rise of the Subtitles, sadly. So this thing is merely called “The Amazingly Indescribable Thing,” or something equally vague, by Lucius Q. Oldenscribe. The cover is a photo of a ragged, black-clothed library book with that title.

By sheer reflex, your eager little fingers are instantly Googling title and author. And you basically get an echo chamber: other sites offering the same book with absolutely no description. Hey, we got this book! No idea what it is, but we all got it!

Distributed Proofreaders, we’re looking at you: Help us out here! Did you happen to notice a subject matter while you were processing this volume? Anything at all?

This is what we really need: some resourceful Internet soul who at least dips into many of these volumes and produces a sentence or two of identification. If it’s called “1902 Proceeds of the Iowa Beet Farmer’s Convivium,” or “Great Cigars I Have Smelt,” we’re good. But if it’s called “Uncle Zeke Goes Forth,” or “Being,” any clue at all would be helpful.

“A genuine quandary,” you reply. “But what can we, comrades of the blogosphere, do?”

Well, as a point of light, I give you Leah A. Zeldes. Leah is a writer and journalist based somewhere or other, and in particular, she’s a very active and observant reader. For some time, she has been reviewing older books on the site. Helpfully, the site runner has an engine to generate all her “five-star,” or top-rated reads in one place. You can find that list here.

Leah is to the e-book pioneer generation what Sacagawea was to Lewis and Clark. She helps to guide us through the wilds of untamed e-text, works digitized for no particularly good reason, and points us to rich lands we might not have otherwise found. Long may her ilk prosper.

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  1. Thank you so much for the kind words! I just stumbled across your post. I’m glad to know somebody’s reading.

    Your account of the frustration in finding interesting books among all the old texts online is exactly what prompted me to write reviews. I’m extremely grateful to the volunteers at Gutenberg for doing the digitizing, and to Manybooks’ creator Matt McMillan, who put them into the bookstore-like site where at least you get excerpts, so I thought I’d help by doing what I could to steer other readers to worthwhile books.

    The “Five-Star Novels” list is actually a user bookshelf, a feature the Manybooks offers registered users; you have to add the book titles manually (I also did one of “Great Short Fiction”: does have an engine to show all of a user’s reviews, good and bad, e.g.

    Thanks again, and good reading!

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