Good-bye to e-Book Pioneer Michael Hart (and Thanks for Those 36,000+ Freebies)

September 14, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 3 6 min read

Michael Hart and Gregory Newby at HOPE Conference

Public domain e-books are dear to me as a writer (where would I be without my fixes of Dreiser and other favorites?), and the man most responsible for them is now dead.

Vinton Cerf and colleagues gave us the Internet, with Al Gore cheering them on. But it was Michael Stern Hart of Project Gutenberg who popularized the Net as a book library. He died September 6 at age 64 at his home in Urbana, Illinois, after a long series of health woes, with more than 36,000 free Gutenberg books on the Web, in 60 languages, as his legacy. How to take this personally? I, too, have devoted years of my life to e-books, and coincidentally my middle name is the same as Michael’s last. He and I were born just weeks apart. In September 2008, I suffered a heart attack, and in the same month in 2011, he died of one.

Like many boomers, both of us distrusted Washington politicians. But Michael outdid me. He passionately opposed my vision of a well-stocked national digital library system, a priority to me as an ex-poverty beat reporter who had seen too many bookless homes but knew that cheapie color tablets would one day reach Kmart. Even William F. Buckley, Jr. could go for that one, in two “On the Right” columns, despite my port-side politics. But Michael’s fear of Washington knew no bounds.

Michael also loathed my advocacy of the ePub standard for the formats of digital books, now used by Apple, Sony, and Barnes & Noble (albeit often gummed up by proprietary copy protection).

As both a reader and editor-publisher of the TeleRead e-book site, I hated the Tower of eBabel that the industry had created before ePub. You don’t need Company X’s glasses to read paper books by author Y. Shouldn’t even commercial e-books be the same, regardless of Jeff Bezos’ proprietary tendencies? Michael somehow never understood.

But regardless of major differences about e-books and life in general–the man so often thrived on chaos, whether technical or organizational–how could I not respect Michael’s vision and idealism? Not to mention his tenacity. Michael’s very first digitization, on July 4, 1971, was of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Even with optical character recognition technology used today, it can be challenging for volunteers to produce accurate digital editions in ePub and other text-rather-than-image formats. Automation will take you only so far if you want a top-notch reproduction. Distributed Proofreaders, an allied group, originates many of the titles and is now Gutenberg’s main source of books.

Michael’s big gift to the cosmos wasn’t just the creation of the Gutenberg Web site and the accompanying communities of diligent volunteers. He also encouraged other sites to spread the books around–realizing that the best way to defend the public domain was to promote the popular use of it. Google may make the most money off the classics, and at the most lofty level, let’s hope that the Harvard-based Digital Public Library of American can succeed; just don’t forget the real Godfather of free E.

Certain academics and librarians have knocked the Godfather’s books for less than perfectly accurate reproductions of the originals. Scholars should care. But what about another kind of preservation? Michael helped keep the classics much more on the minds of the young than they would otherwise be.

coverThe 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, the ultimate anti-Michael, anti-library law or close to it, outraged many beneficiaries of his toil. Washington doled out 20 more years; that meant a writer’s life plus 70 and still more for corporately authored works. Even and especially as a writer, I agreed with Michael. Copyright exists to spur us on, and last I knew, F. Scott Fitzgerald was not churning out Great Gatsby sequels from St. Mary’s Cemetery. Some posthumous royalties for wives, sons, and daughters of writers for a reasonable time? Definitely, as I myself see it. But, to cite Michael’s wit from years ago, America does not need a “copyright gentry.” Without him around to popularize digital freebies, the Bonoized terms might have stretched even longer. Of course, if e-books hadn’t existed, not to mention Walt Disney’s profits to safeguard, maybe Congress would never have passed the so-called Mickey Mouse Protection Act in the first place. Ironically Michael’s free e-books helped put the medium on the radar of lawyers keen on monetizing as many bits and bytes as they could, schools and libraries be damned.

Alas, Michael was too wild as a potential lead plaintiff for Lawrence Lessig, a noted copyright lawyer, to use in lawsuit against the Bono Act (yes, named after the late entertainer), so another worthy purveyor of free books, Eric Eldred, substituted.

The fight reached the Supreme Court, but, sadly, they lost.

coverNot everyone loves the public domain. Gutenberg’s giveaways have unnerved even some writers without multi-million-dollar estates awaiting their families. Imagine having to compete against dead geniuses whose brilliance the masses can download at no cost. But as an author, I’m better off for Michael’s digitization work. I can more easily draw inspiration from Dreiser’s compassion and realism, visit and revisit the Dickens classics I missed in school, or instantly look up a quote from The Education of Henry Adams.

To teach or write literature, you must read it first, and not just modern books; and Michael vastly simplified the process.

Even some publishers may have come out ahead, since lively classics like Jules Verne’s can encourage readers to go on to modern novels and actually shell out cash. Goodwill and advertising and other commercial possibilities are hardly the only reason why Google, Amazon, Apple, and others carry free public domain writings on their Web sites.

Beyond the world of e-publishing, imagine what Michael’s thousands of free e-books mean to, say, community college students without the cultural and intellectual advantages he enjoyed growing up.

Michael’s own parents were professors at the University of Illinois, his father a Shakespearean scholar, his mother a mathematician. Alice Woodby survives her son, as does his brother, Bennett. The Hart family reared Michael to be unconventional and skeptical, which jibed with his love of a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”

Of course, on e-book standards, I thought Michael was endlessly unreasonable in the traditional sense. He most of all venerated the plain old ASCII text format, which really isn’t a book standard at all, given the need of publishers for little amenities such as italics and bold rendered in good form without fuss. I joined a brave and prescient techie named Jon Noring in pushing a consumer-friendly format called OpenReader, the existence of which prodded the main industry trade group to create and promote ePub, which in the end was fine by me since I cared more about a standard format than about the OpenReader organization. Michael at least tacitly encouraged a wacky troll to go after us standards advocates. At times like those, Planet Earth would have been better off with Gutenberg’s leader as a quiescent son of Dale Carnegie.

Physically, Michael was a short, stout, bearded man fond of showmanship; in at least one photo he wore a top hat, perhaps in part to flaunt his love of the supposedly obsolete, not just to “pull books out of the hat.” That wasn’t the only eccentricity. I never visited his house in Urbana; but a mutual friend did as one of Gutenberg’s thousands of volunteers, and in an online chat she recalled it was “bursting at the seams with books and computer gadgetry. He had to shower in the basement. No decent bathroom.” Michael cared less about such trifles than about tidy e-files for Project Gutenberg (and about amassing the paper books he so often gave away). Remember, this guy sprinkled sugar on his pizza.

Michael could be just as quirky in composing his emails. As remembered by his friend Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, which built on Gutenberg’s work, Michael would manually insert extra spaces between words in correspondence to justify them so they lined up evenly to the right. Michael saw word-wrap as a wicked destroyer of “my phraseology.”

What a mix of the backwards and forward looking! As a novel, Michael would have been a brilliant, sprawling classic from the 19th century–offensive to the order-minded but still a “must read” for the discerning.

The good news is that Shavian unreasonableness notwithstanding, Michael was realistic about his health and–to use his own words, quoted in Brewster’s blog–planned a “graceful exit.” Gregory Newby, a computer scientist at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the same visionary who included a 1990s incarnation of my national digital library proposal in an MIT Press/ASIS information science collection, is Gutenberg’s chief executive. He has devoted thousands of hours of his life to running Gutenberg day to day. And the format wars? Well, I hope they’re winding down at least somewhat. Nowadays you can download thousands of Gutenberg books not just in plain ASCII and in other formats but also in the one of my dreams–nonDRMed ePub.

Many thanks, Michael and Greg, for that and much more regardless of the detours along the way. I hope that Gutenberg lasts at least as long as the most durable of the classics it has digitized.


Image credit: Marcello

(, a writer in Alexandria, VA, runs the site, devoted to the cause of well-stocked national digital libraries. His latest book is The Solomon Scandals (Twilight Times Books), a postmodern Washington-thriller.