How to access free and legal copies of English and American classic literature online

But on your computer.
But on your computer.
Image: AP Photo/Christian Palma
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Add up all the textbooks and calculators that students need to buy and September can be rough for American parents and their children. While schools require purchases of the latest textbook editions each year, parents can acquire some books that never go out of date—and cost nearly nothing.

Many of the American and English literary works that are required reading are available online. You don’t need to know how to torrent, or hurt your eyes reading poorly scanned illegal PDFs, either; these books are available legally through publisher licenses. Here’s a few resources for finding To Kill a MockingbirdThe Great Gatsby, 1984, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, and other commonly required reading for free:

Your library and a device

If you’re not a member of a public library, join one. Many public libraries use OverDrive, an app that lets you borrow ebooks and audiobooks. Download OverDrive on a device, or use the site on your computer browser, and log in with your library card number. You could also try Libby, an app recently released by OverDrive with the same functionality and a better interface.

Availability depends on your branch, but there will be tons of classics. Some of the most popular may be on hold, but here are some currently available at my libraries in New York City and central New Jersey.

Available: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club; George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm; Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye; Lois Lowry’s The Giver; The Elements of Style; William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies; John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Project Gutenberg (Australia)

Project Gutenberg collects ebooks in the public domain in the US. Its Australian counterpart does the same thing for books in the public domain in Australia, where laws are more lax than the US.

Available on the US site: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma; Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities; Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace; Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis; James Joyce’s Ulysses; Beowulf; Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray; Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein.

On the Australia site: George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm; Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own, and To the Lighthouse; Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here; Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night.

Open Library

A project of Internet Archive, Open Library plans to catalog every book in existence. A subset of the books in the database are accessible for free right now; others you can borrow after you join a waiting list. Below are some of the ones perpetually available.

Available: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, and Daisy Miller; Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome; Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility.

For any work by Shakespeare

All of Shakespeare’s poems and plays are in the public domain. MIT has a complete database.

Available: Every written work.


Scribd is a subscription-based database of books and audiobooks, along with articles from paywalled sites like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. It costs $9 a month, but if you’re in a bind for one or two books, you can get a free 30-day trial.

Available: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms.

Google Books

Google once had huge ambitions for a massive digital library of all the world’s books, but got defeated by copyright battles. If you choose “Free Google ebooks” when you search, you can find a few that are old enough to be in the public domain.

Available: Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights; George Eliot’s Middlemarch; Dante’s The Inferno.

The Library of Congress’s site has a few classics if you don’t mind reading directly in your browser.

Available: ‎Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables; Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.