I wrote this review for my personal blog, but liked this app so much that I thought I would add some material to the post and bring it to the more general audience of this blog.
I ran across a great app for iPad today. It’s called “Free Books” and is just what it says, a free interface to 23,469 public domain books from Project Gutenberg. In fact, I liked it so much that I purchased (for all of 99 cents) it’s companion app called “Classicly HD,” which is the same app with access to the same collection of free books, but also access to 2,947 audiobooks from LibriVox, the free volunteer reader audio book project. This is not the entire Gutenberg library, which at this writing contains over 36,000 books.
Now, it is true that access to Project Gutenberg books and LibriVox audiobooks is completely free anyway—these are all public domain works, generally published before 1923 or, in the case of the audiobooks, books performed by volunteer narrators—but actually downloading them and side loading them from iTunes (or otherwise) onto your iPad is far from elegant. This app puts the elegance into access to these masterworks of Western literary culture.
The app uses a bookshelf/library analogy, like iBooks, and classifies the titles into large, generic collections like Best Of, Autos & Bios, Banned Books, Ghost Stories, The Great Poets, and so on; not nearly so efficient as a library catalog, but fine for browsing where the serendipitous discovery of a title feels like more of a genuine find. (Interesting how we sometimes are pleased to be hobbled.) Within collections the books can be displayed on tabs by Title, Author, Popular and Rating. Much of the app developer’s work must have involved dressing up the works with custom covers. I don’t care what anyone says, book covers are VERY important to book reading.
Once you select a book to read you will be presented with an information panel about the book, with the option to download and read (or download and listen, in the case of audiobooks), with a gallery of related titles below.
If you do select to download and read the book will be placed on a shelf in your Library, and once you add something to the library you can toggle between browse view and library view to access whatever you are currently reading. It is easy to delete a book from your library if you no longer wish to store it on your iPad.
The reading experience is very similar to the Kindle app, with controls for changing font size, background color and brightness, bookmarking, reading reviews of the book, jumping to bookmarks or jumping to another section in the table of contents. There are no annotation or highlighting features, unfortunately, and I recommend this as the first improvement the developers work on.
To access audiobooks only, touch the audio icon in the top toolbar, from browse view.
The Help (?) doesn’t seem to do anything, even if you go through the labyrinthine process of creating an account with Get Satisfaction for this app. The globe icon is just an add for a for-pay browser app this company makes called Browser+ HD ($2.99) for which I cannot imagine a need. And, by the way, is the only add you will accosted with in using the book app, free or paid. The search icon is excellent, and is the best gateway to finding the works not categorized in the very general heads that can be accessed through Collections, Authors, or Genres. The Authors category in book view displays only 33 of the very best known authors arranged alphabetically in FIRST NAME order! To find works by the great Dorothy L. Sayers or John Forster, Dickens’ friend and original biographer, you need to search, not to mention Percy Hethrington Fitzgerald, Forster’s own biographer. The search can be rather sluggish, because it reports results in a hit list as you type, but patience is rewarded.
Once an audiobook is downloaded, it can be played from within the app with a player that allows for chapter by chapter access (that is how books are recorded at LibriVox, a volunteer records a chapter or more), a feature that gives finer control than is normally available on audio playback devices like iPod. It is true that many of the LibriVox volunteers are not professionally trained narrators, but they beat synthetic text-to-speech generators by a mile.
The audiobook player is a jewel, with controls, as mentioned above, for chapter-level access, email book to self (or any valid email address, actually), and a unique sleep timer, for those who like to be read to sleep, I suppose.
There is a companion web site to the app at http://www.classicly.com, which has the same library of books and audiobooks, and allows download in PDF, Kindle or mp3 format (in the case of audiobooks).
Of course the books then need to be side loaded if you are putting them on a mobile device, but the world is not perfect yet.
Other than the sluggishness of the search function and the admittedly odd classification system, this is a terrific app for the price (or free, without audiobook access) and takes all the drudgery out of downloading and reading or playing the most popular public domain works.