A while back now we read two novels by Robert Hugh Benson (Lord of the World and Dawn of All), originally published in 1908 and 1911. We’d become aware of these from a post on Siris (here). Both came from a publisher called Forgotten Books (link). I noted at the time that Forgotten Books might be a valuable source, but what with having bought two books of fiction, the impression was not as strong as it became when, very recently, I purchased a copy of Phantasms of the Living, by Edmund Gurney et al, and discovering, from its distinctive title page, that it also belongs under that publisher’s imprint. Well. Phantasms is a non-fiction classic in the parapsychology field; it appeared in 1886. Now I have a paperback of it which is actually a photocopy of the original. This made me go to the publisher’s web site to find out a little more.
Forgotten Books offers around 487,000 old books accessible in various form, online and also on paper (from Amazon.com). As best as I can tell, none of these is still covered by a copyright although Forgotten Books puts its own copyright on them (of dubious enforceability, I think). I made a test. For years now I’ve been trying to get access to the German historian, Theodor Mommsen—a process that has required long waits as volumes of his History of Rome reach me from distant university libraries. These books are rather handily available, at surprisingly low prices (Vol. 1, for instance is $10.03) from Forgotten Books. Books in English, Latin, French, German, Italian, and Spanish are also available. A perusal of a few of these have shown that the photocopying approach is not always entirely flawless. Sometimes small errors appear in typography. But access is what matters when it comes to getting at nineteenth century books of the sort really inaccessible in an orderly manner unless you live right next to a very major university library. Thus far, in neither of the two novels nor in Phantasms have I met any typographical anomalies.