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.

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