A Study in Thrift: How to Fill an iPad with Free E-books from Project Gutenberg

While nearly every reading app comes with an easily accessible stash of free public domain books a user can read from within the app, I get my free e-books from Project Gutenberg and read them in iBooks.

If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Study in Scarlet is essentially the same regardless of its source, then why does it matter? Project Gutenberg pioneered free e-books back in the ’70s when computers still filled entire rooms. If you want to learn more there’s an entire e-book on the subject.

Project Gutenberg employs legions of volunteers to ensure its offerings, which come from real publishers, are proofread, so a reader can expect the text to be identical to what one might find on a shelf at his local library.

Project Gutenberg’s materials rarely come configured as bafflingly large “complete works,” that can be annoying to slog through, nor does the reader have to put up sifting through the remainder-y feel that the free books section of iBooks has.

Since Project Gutenberg isn’t a commercial site it also forgoes offering “free previews” that can be confusing. Not to be confused with a sample of the book, a free preview is a standalone snippet whose sole purpose is to clog your device with useless files.

For example, go to iBooks — Charts — Free and you’ll find a bonus chapter of the 2013 Guinness Book of World records sandwiched between books offering sex advice and a bunch of trashy romance novels. Though Project Gutenberg does enable writers to submit works that were self-published elsewhere, the site’s titles are largely those that have endured, capturing the interest of generations of readers.

Another advantage of using Project Gutenberg is that it generally only offers readers a choice between digital books and audiobooks. When I typed “study in scarlet” as a search term in iBooks, it generated an entire page of hits. It’s confusing and cluttered, whereas, on Project Gutenberg it is straightforward and clean. Repeating the search on Project Gutenberg’s website offered three versions, two of which were audiobooks. It was obvious which file I should choose:


New users may get confused by the plethora of file types available to download. iPad readers want the EPUB file. It’s actually easier than downloading a book from your library for the iPad.

How to download an ebook from Project Gutenberg to an iPad:

  • Step one: Go to http:m.gutenberg.org in Safari.
  • Step two: Choose a book.
  • Step three: Which format? EPUB!
  • Step four: Tap the “open in iBooks” button.
  • Step five: Open iBooks, find your book, and start reading.

If you’d prefer not to use iBooks, consider Readmill, Subtext, or Goodreads, all of which I wrote about yesterday. Though all three apps can handle the EPUB format, Readmill was the easiest to use.

Project Gutenberg is a US-based site. Peruse a list of the Project’s sister sites to find one in your country or region.

Like all the best things in life Project Gutenberg is completely free. But don’t be a dead-beat reader. If you love Project Gutenberg (and you will) consider making a donation.

About Emily: Emily is a freelance writer who loves discovering new apps whenever she can pry the iPad away from her children or husband. You can contact her via Twitter: @whatwentwrite