I have been a huge fan of Project Gutenberg since I first landed on it a decade ago. This is one of the earliest and largest Internet projects, comparable to Wikipedia, though garnering significantly less publicity than most. Project Gutenberg is the largest collection of free electronic books and, very importantly, an entirely legal collection, as all the books are in the public domain in the United States. The site closely tracks the US copyright laws, which get changed every once in a while, to accommodate Disney and other content creators. If you are living outside the US, there are Gutenberg affiliates such as Gutenberg Australia that cater to regional copyright law.
Project Gutenberg has evolved over the years. It now has an audio books section. I find the human-read audio books to be of higher quality than the computer-generated audio books, only because the humans understand the context of the sentences and place the right emphasis on the right words. Of course, the quality of different human authors can vary too. The non-fiction books are the best, because they lack dialogue which can be a challenge for even the best narrator. You probably need a bunch of narrators to read a fiction book, something on the lines of a radio play such as the one by Orson Welles.
In addition to audio, you can also get the material on the Gutenberg site in different formats. Although the original philosophy of the site was ASCII-only, they have now relented to have HTML versions of the books as well as Plucker files for smartphones. You can also get entire CDs and DVDs filled with books sent to you, though with the greater bandwidth nowadays, it is not as attractive an option as it was during the AOL dial-in days.
With 27000 free e-books at Project Gutenberg (and 100,000 at its affiliates), the problem is not finding something to read. It is about finding the time and convenience to read. I enjoy lying curled up in bed with a book, and so have not been a fan of reading full books on a computer screen. Recently, however, I found Daily Lit, a site that packages short installments of books and sends them to you via email or RSS. Reading a few pages of a book every day in Google Reader isn’t so bad, though it does take quite a few days to get through a book. A minor grouch I have is that the installments break off without much attention to the beginning or end of chapters.
Project Gutenberg doesn’t have many non-fiction books, though there are some interesting ones like “Amusements in Mathematics” and historically relevant ones like “The Origin of Species”. For obvious reasons, it does not have many technology or business related material unless you count books by Adam Smith. But if you are looking for fiction, especially classics, this is the place to go.
[Image used under a Creative Commons license from babblingdweeb]