We all know about Project Gutenberg, that wonderful magical internet place full of lots and lots of public domain books, and what we all think is the best thing about it is that they’re free. That’s not it, though. The best thing about Gutenberg (and other places like it) is the weird stuff in the depths.
It’s the joy of a university library, replicated on the internet, that’s how I look at it. You can roam far and wide among the shelves, running your fingers across book titles that are kind of weird and bizarre, books that surely must have been used for a class or something, who knows what, but here they are. Maybe that’s not your thing, but it makes me a happy happy camper.
With that in mind, I’ve poked around the internet and dug up some very interesting books for you, which are free. They aren’t the most obscure and esoteric offerings out there (maybe that’ll be for later), but they’re indispensable, each in their own way.
The Lives And Adventures of Sundry Notorious Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson
In 1724, Captain Charles Johnson published a catalog of pirates, talking in detail about various individual pirates and their exploits. It was an immediate bestseller and has remained so pretty much ever since. It’s from this book that the vast majority of our piratical knowledge endures. Although we can track pirates through other sources — testimonials given in courts, arrests, execution orders, stories handed down and eventually written down — our major source of pirate knowledge comes from this book.
From it, we learn quite a lot about famous pirates you already know without opening the book. Captain John Rackham, Captain William Kid, Captain Teach, better known as Blackbeard…they, and more besides, have entries in this book. It makes for fascinating reading all these years later. (An aside: I just poked the calculator. This book is two hundred and eighty-nine years old! Let that sink in for a moment. To put it in context, this book was fifty-two years old when the United States was founded. I mean…wow.)
One thing which has helped this book endure for so long is that name on the front cover, Captain Charles Johnson. It’s known to be a pseudonym, but whose? That’s the unanswered question. There’s a lot of suggestion that it was possibly author Daniel DeFoe, who wrote Robinson Crusoe, and who seems to have the right amount of knowledge and motive and is likely to have done the book. But did we? Well, it’s 289 years old. We’ll never know.
The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francise Grose
Stop dancing the Balum Rancum and read this book. Even if you’re a buffle-headed Jack at a pinch, you’ll enjoy this book. I advise you to download it onto your phone, scroll through it, and deploy the words liberally throughout your day. Finally, you have a way to be obscene that no one can do anything about! Not even my editors can complaint about my usage of [REDACTED] !!
I don’t know a lot about this book, assembled by a Captain Grose with the aid — I see in the file — of someone named Hell-Fire Dick (not a name I would have expected would lend one to a life of dictionary-assembling), I suspect the book would’ve been aimed at the middle and upper classes, who could enjoy shocking themselves gently over the horrid language them poor folks were using in the streets. Possibly if I were a rich person, I wouldn’t have wanted to know, as now I’d be walking down the street knowing exactly what people were muttering about me.
At any rate, it’s a lot of fun and you can irritate the Blind Cupid off your friends!
London Labour and London Poor by Richard Mayhew
It has continually surprised me that this book isn’t more easily able to be found online. It’s not on Project Gutenberg, and I have no idea why not. When I do find it, it’s through dodgy links that sometimes collapse on me. Your best bet, for this book from 1861, is to get a physical copy. Still, it is online, at least somewhat.
In its way, Richard Mayhew’s book is a bit like a later variation on that 1811 Dictionary of Vulgar Tongue, but where that previous book was focused on capturing the rude language of the people on the street, Mayhew’s book was more interested in examining the people themselves, who live in squalor throughout the less affluent rookeries of the city known as The Great Oven. It’s not necessarily as fun a book as the others, but it is a fascinating examination (entirely accurate or not) of the groups of peoples who lived in London at this time, whether it’s the poor people squatting in ruined buildings next to overflowing graveyards, or it’s the supposed tribes of savage (perhaps cannibalistic?) people who lived underground in the sewers, along the brick alcoves and sidewalks that ran next to the rivers which were entirely underground.
Occasionally, well-off gentlemen would hire off-duty policemen and go on what was essentially a safari into these poor and wretched parts of London (look, in Paris at the same time, they were giving canal-like tours of the new Paris sewers. They didn’t have television yet). Charles Dickens used to do it, but he had more sympathy than many of those who would take tours of the poor quarters. For those who hadn’t the stomach or courage to go into the poor areas, Richard Mayhew’s book was very popular and titillating. It still remains a fascinating read.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Morning-room in Algernon’s flat in Half-Moon Street. The room is luxuriously and artistically furnished. The sound of a piano is heard in the adjoining room.
[Lane is arranging afternoon tea on the table, and after the music has ceased, Algernon enters.]
Algernon. Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?
Lane. I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.
Algernon. I’m sorry for that, for your sake. I don’t play accurately—any one can play accurately—but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life.
Lane. Yes, sir.
Algernon. And, speaking of the science of Life, have you got the cucumber sandwiches cut for Lady Bracknell?
Look, I know this isn’t an obscure text in the slightest, but did you realize that The Importance of Being Earnest is on Project Gutenberg? It’s just the funniest and smarter and most wonderfully constructed play ever done — and I’ll fight you if you say otherwise — and it’s just sitting there waiting for you to read it.
Algernon. I hope, Cecily, I shall not offend you if I state quite frankly and openly that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection.
Cecily. I think your frankness does you great credit, Ernest. If you will allow me, I will copy your remarks into my diary. [Goes over to table and begins writing in diary.]
Algernon. Do you really keep a diary? I’d give anything to look at it. May I?
Cecily. Oh no. [Puts her hand over it.] You see, it is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy. But pray, Ernest, don’t stop. I delight in taking down from dictation. I have reached ‘absolute perfection’. You can go on. I am quite ready for more.
Algernon. [Somewhat taken aback.] Ahem! Ahem!
Cecily. Oh, don’t cough, Ernest. When one is dictating one should speak fluently and not cough. Besides, I don’t know how to spell a cough.
Just go read it for yourself, will you? It’s amazingly readable. It hasn’t aged at all. The humor and the very clever, subtle bits all still work perfectly. It fits our modern “I gotta tweet this!” times as perfectly as it did the era in which it was written. I’m restraining myself from quoting the whole thing. Go read or I’ll come ’round and recite it to you, you see if I don’t.
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