In praise of Project Gutenberg

The sad news was reported last week of the death of Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg. Where the original Johannes Gutenberg, it is argued, manufactured the first printed book, Michael Hart invented the e-book. In 1971 he first typed out the Declaration of Independence on his university’s mainframe computer, and so began one of the world wide web’s greatest creations, a couple of decades before the web itself existed. Hart had created the electronic form of a printed text, but much more than that he saw the potential of creating a vast repository of freely-available texts, open to all.

His was an invention not only made for the Internet, but one which in a profound way helped inspire its ideals. One of the first things anyone learned about once they had logged on in those pioneering mid-1990s days was that there was this wonderful, altruistic project to make available the world’s public domain texts. Nor was it just one man with a keyboard, but rather a growing band of volunteers were giving up their time to type, proof-read, check OCR and present texts to the rest of the world simply because it was a noble thing to do. This, we learned, was what the Internet and the world wide web were all about – knowledge freely shared by all.

Many others have followed where Hart led, with the Internet Archive making available many of the same texts, Google now digitising out-of-copyright texts on a gigantic scale, and Amazon working hard to overturn centuries of reading practice with the Kindle e-book reader. But Project Gutenberg ploughs on, now with 36,000 books available, plus tens of thousands more through its affailiate organisations. Here at the Bioscope we have from time to time noted important texts in our field which have been made available by Gutenberg; they are described in the Bioscope Library. Below is a list of these and some of the other silent film-related books available on Project Gutenberg. The best thing you can do, by way of tribute to Hart’s great work, is to download and read at least one.

  • ‘Victor Appleton’, The Moving Picture Boys on the War Front (1918)
    One of a series of children’s adventure stories featuring the daring exploits of cameramen, a number of which feature on Gutenberg.
  • J. Berg Esenwein and Arthur Leeds, Writing the Photoplay (1919) [orig. 1913]
    A standard guide to writing a screenplay.
  • Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin, Edison: His Life and Inventions (1929)
    Early biography of the inventor of the Kinetoscope.
  • Arnold Fredericks [Frederic Arnold Kummer], The Film of Fear (1917)
    Thriller novel with a film background.
  • Vachel Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture (1915) [1922 revision]
    Classic, poetical study of the motion picture as an art form.
  • Geoffrey H. Malins, How I Filmed the War (1920)
    Classic account of an official cinematographer’s experiences of filming in the First World War.
  • Brander Matthews, ‘The Kinetoscope of Time’ in Tales of Fantasy and Fact (1896)
    Book of short stories with hauting tale inspired by the Kinetoscope.
  • Hugo Münsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (1916)
    Generally considered the first serious work of film theory.
  • E. Phillips Oppenheim, The Cinema Murder (1917)
    British detective story with an American motion picture background.
  • Luigi Pirandello, Shoot! (si gira) (1927) [orig. 1915] [from Project Gutenberg Australia]
    Pirandello’s satirical novel about a cinematographer who is also an absurdist writer.
  • Jose Maria Rivera, Cinematografo (1920)
    A play (written in Tagalog) about the popularity of cinema in Filipino society.
  • Harry Leon Wilson, Merton of the Movies (1919)
    Celebrated comic novel about a terrible movie actor who is cast for laughs while he thinks he is playing in straight drama.

Thank you Michael Hart and all the volunteers at Project Gutenberg.

The Pirate King

Well, there I was, thinking to put together another Bioscope newsreel, and struggling to dig up news stories that wouldn’t better served as full posts, when I came across what I think is a first. It’s the first promotional video that I’ve come across for a book on silent films. If you don’t know, publishers are becoming increasingly keen to produce what are effectively trailers for the books they publish, which can feature author interviews, extracts being read out, or sometimes scenes being dramatised. It’s a whole genre to itself, and you just hope that some archivist somewhere is collecting them all.

Most of these videos are for fictional works, and that’s the case with Pirate King (I can hear the cries of disappointment that it is not some severe tome on Deleuzean film theory that has been given the video promo treatment). No, Pirate King is the latest production from American novelist Laurie R. King, who writes novels in which Sherlock Holmes works alongside his wife Mary Russell, an undercover detective. No, you won’t find her in the Arthur Conan Doyle works, but King has imagined that Holmes had retired to the Sussex Downs after His Last Bow and met the 16-year-old Russell in 1915, when he was aged 54. Well, of course.

Pirate King is the eleventh in this series, and this time Mary and Sherlock becomes involved in the murky world of British silent films of the 1920s. The Pirate King is a film producer with a criminal past, named Randolph Flytte, a sort of English Erich von Stroheim, who is making a film of The Pirates of Penzance in Portgual and Morocco. And then real pirates get involved.

Alas, the author has missed the chance to produce something with added complexity, because of course there was an extensive series of short films based on the Holmes stories filmed at Stoll Film Studios in the early 1920s, many directed by Maruice Elvey, with Eille Norwood as one of the best screen Sherlocks there has been. There’s a whole Bioscope post on the history of Conan Doyle’s works and the silent screen, if you want to know more. What fun it would have been had Sherlock and Mary had their mystery to solve amid the film company filming one of his adventures. It would have been a whole lot more plausible than pirates or indeed a British cinema of the period with anything like someone like Erich von Stroheim beside the camera. Indeed, a missed chance.

You can read extracts on Laurie R. King’s website, from which you may also learn that the renowned Portguese Poet Fernando Pessoa is also a character, and that either the author or her web manager can’t spell D’Oyly Carte. And there’s an interview with King, focussing on the film side of things (about which she doesn’t appear to know a great deal, though she does note the existence of Sherlock Jr.) done by Thomas Gladysz for his SFGate blog.