The following are books you can download for your Kindle at no cost from Amazon. There are hundreds, maybe thousands more, but these are books I have read, though not necessarily on Kindle. Nearly all the classics that are in public domain are there. If you do not have Kindle, there are other options available here at Loyal Books and at Project Gutenberg.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott It is never too soon to read Little Women. Folks should read all of her books about her family. We would be a happier people if we were as familiar with the March sisters and their stories as we were with the Kardashians.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen If you have not read this, I don’t know you. Seriously, Pride and Prejudice and Emma are the two classics that everyone must read at least once.

Emma by Jane Austen A nearly perfect book and my favorite Austen book. I know Pride and Prejudice is the usual favorite, but I love the bossy Emma and have never found the grumpy Mr. Darcy to be that compelling, so I pick Emma.

The Land of Oz Series by L. Frank Baum. All of L. Frank Baum’s Oz adventures are great fun and worth reading. It is good to remember they began as a political satire. The political question was free silver or the gold standard and it’s worth noting that neither the silver slippers nor the yellow brick road that represent silver and gold are bad in the story. Oz, by the way, represents the measurement in which gold and silver are traded. Dorothy represents the ordinary person, the Wicked Witches of the East and West are the eastern banks and financiers and the western railroads and extraction industries, the Munchkins are the poor, the Good Witches are the electorates of the North and South (the Civil War was still fresh in everyone’s mind), the Scarecrow represents the farmers, the TinMan stands for the industrial workers and the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan. The Wizard of course is the president, seemingly all powerful, but not powerful at all. There is a far more detailed explanation here. But, for all the context that adds, the reason to read the Oz adventures is that they are fun.

A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird: Isabella Bird was an intrepid explorer of the world. This is a memoir of her Rocky Mountain adventures in 1873 that include mountain climbing, herding cattle and hanging about with desperadoes. With a keen eye for detail and a naturalist’s familiarity with the flora and fauna, she described her adventures with a great sense of place. She was calm in crisis, ready to meet people as they were and always up for a new adventure. I have enjoyed several of her books and this is a nice short introduction to this amazing woman.

The Englishwoman in America by Isabella Bird: There is something hilarious about a woman traveling to Niagara Falls in 1856 and complaining about the tourist traps and guided tours. I guess some elements of travel never change. Isabella Bird began traveling for her health but kept at it because she loved adventure, loved people and loved the independence of traveling alone at a time when most women’s lives were circumscribed by social conventions. She travels through Canada, parts of New England and New York, Ohio and Illinois. She’s describes the landscape and the people and society.

The Hawaiian Archipelago by Isabella Bird: This is the first book I read by Isabella Bird and interestingly enough, when I requested it from the library after someone recommended it, there was a waiting list–a wait list for a book written in 1872! It is sometimes published as Six Months in the Sandwich Islands. It begins with her scary voyage from Australia to Hawaii in a ship that had seen better days. When she arrives, she travels throughout the islands, staying with farmers, at hotels, with gentry and with indigenous Hawaiians. She rides horse all over, climbs volcanoes on terrain that scorches her shoes and never once stops describing with great detail the landscape and the people. She is no perfect explorer, she has the same colonial and missionary prejudices of any British imperialist, but that does not stop her from making friends and spending time with people. Her social standing was such that she was invited to meet the economic and political leaders both British and Hawaiian, and as a witness to an important period in Hawaiian history, this memoir is fascinating on many levels.

The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett  The Secret Garden is not just for children. Such a lovely story should be read at least once every decade.

A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolome de las Casas: As an antidote to the adventure story of the Conquest, this book by Father de las Casas is excellent though hard to stomach. He wrote this to advocate for the human rights of the indigenous people. Historians often criticize his narrative for bias and for advocacy. For some reason, advocating for conquest and imperialism is seldom described as biased, but advocating for human rights whether in the 16th or the 21st century always results in accusations of bias.

The Discovery and Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo: I read this book years and years ago and have my copy packed away with many of my other books. It is a first person account of the discovery and conquest of Mexico by someone who was actually there. He tells the story of Dona Marina or Malinche, Cortez interpreter. It is history as though written by a novelist, full of action and adventure. He also gets point for honesty about his motives. “We went there to serve God, and also to get rich”.

My Antonia by Willa Cather Jim Burden is the narrator of this story. He met Antonia when she and her family and he were all on the train west to settle in Nebraska. He lived with his grandparents who were the Shimerda’s neighbors. Antonia Shimerda is a Bohemian immigrant who settles with her family in Nebraska. They become friends and they grow up together, though she is older than him. This is a story about the land, about settlement, about making a life and finding happiness and rewards through living. It is simply wonderful.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes This is another book that people avoid because they think big book equals hard book. They are wrong. This is one big hilarious book. I read it in Spanish and in English and it’s funny and wise and fascinating in both languages.

The Alexiad of Anna Comnena This one is not free. It costs $0.99 and is intended more for family members. I first read this out of genealogical interest. Alexius I Comnenus is a distant ancestor, my 28th great grandfather. Anna, the author is not an ancestor, she’s a great-aunt many times over. We descend from her brother John I Comnenus. Anna and her husband were the ones their mother Irene wanted to rule, but John took his father’s ring before he died and took power. His mother and his sister Anna (the author) conspired to overthrow him, but failed, which is a good thing, because that left her free time to write this history. It’s a little bit over the top in that she thinks her father walked on water, but it is thrilling to read a first person, eyewitness account of the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness has a lot of impact for such a small book. Reimagined in Apocalypse Now, it is a story that most people now know, but even if you have seen the movie a dozen times, it is worth it to read the book. People love it or hate it, but I thought it more interesting than the movie, perhaps because reading is a slower, more personal process than watching a film and because imagined scenes can be more vivid than scenes in a film.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens This is the wonderful story of Pip who goes from poverty to comfort to poverty again meeting some of the most wonderful characters, in particular the unforgettable Miss Havisham.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens The story of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, the shamefully long and tortuous lawsuit, is Dickens’ best novel. It may be long, but don’t be intimidated, it is a great, action-packed story. Not one page is wasted.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky I think it is important to understanding Dostoyevsky to know he was a youthful revolutionary, captured, imprisoned for a year before being sentenced to death. He and his fellow revolutionaries were taken to be shot by a firing squad, blindfolded and waiting to be shot when the Tsar sent a letter giving them a reprieve – exile in Siberia where he spent four years. This made him value goodness, forgiveness and compassion. So he created his idiot, his holy fool, Prince Myshkin who by virtue of his goodness is out of step with the world, with society and inadvertently harms those he cares about. People think he is an idiot, but he is merely good. And you know, being good, being without judgment can make a person dangerous. This is a fascinating book with complex characters. It is unpredictable, which is what I most love in a book.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is another great book by Dostoyevsky. Fyodor Karamazov, a hard, angry and unloving father is murdered. Fyodor has three sons, Dimitri, Ivan and Alexei, the sensualist, the rationalist and the idealist. There’s a fourth, unacknowledged son,  Pavel, the servant. Dimitri and his father are rivals for the affections of Grushenka, a woman who is not in love with either of them but enjoys setting them against each other. There are other important characters as well, it is a complex story. There is a chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor” that explores faith and doubt, belief and unbelief and it is so amazing it is sometimes published on its own as a novella.

The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald  This is a far more important and far more interesting novel than The Great Gatsby, and not because Gatsby is anything less than a great novel. Fitzgerald understands that people need purpose, that having too much too easily can allow rot to set in. Anthony and Gloria are infatuated and mad for each other, so madly in love but their love is broken, the rot sets in. It begins when they are at a party and she wants to go home but he refuses and they argue about whether or not he is drunk. He insists on staying, thinking by dominating her, she will admire his strength, but instead she loses faith and trust. What’s interesting is that I recently read Villa America, the novelized story of the Murphy’s whose famous hospitality was so much part of ex-pat culture in France and that  Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda had that exact fight at one of the Murphy’s weekends. There is a 0.99 copy of Tender is the Night at Amazon, a novel by Fitzgerald that is the story of the Murphy’s and the Villa America.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois One of the first books of sociology, it was drawn from several essays and writings by Du Bois to advocate for the rights of black people to an education, to the franchise and to equality. He identifies and defines what later came to called internalized racism, but what he called double consciousness. the sense black people have of seeing themselves through the eyes of others, and not in a good way. This was published in 1903 and successfully identified systemic racism and its effects, how the black experience is so very different from white experience it as though there is a veil. Du Bois also argued against Booker T. Washington’s idea that vocational education is the answer – a disagreement that still continues with many people, mostly whites, urging a two-track educational model that would in practice divert most black students out of the college track. This book is more than 100 years old and still has relevance to the salient issues of today.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin. I read this for the first time my freshman year of college. I expected it to be boring. It was anything but. Of course, I knew Franklin had an eventful life, but I expected like most politicians who write their own history, he would gloss over his mistakes and produce something designed to polish his reputation. Franklin seemed to write more in service of understanding himself than selling himself and that makes this a fascinating book.

Memoirs of Cardinal de Retz by Cardinal de Retz Jean Francois Paul de Gondi These are the complete memoirs of Cardinal de Retz and was used as the inspiration for Dumas’ Twenty Years After and describes the Fronde, the civil wars of France from 1648-1653. As an instigator, he had an insider’s view. He was also tutored by St. Vincent de Paul, These were not like the French Revolution but were wars waged by the nobility over taxes, though by the second Fronde, it seemed mainly they were rebelling because their feelings were hurt.

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy Far From the Madding Crowd is  love story with one of the most exasperating heroines ever to grace a novel. Her name is Bathsheba and that is pretty heavy foreshadowing right there. She is a woman who draws men in and loves unwisely. She is loved by Gabriel the shepherd, Boldwood the wealthy farmer and Troy the gambler and ne’er-do-well. Three guesses who she chooses. But, of course, a Hardy novel is always complex and so there is much more to the story. I love Hardy. He is one of my favorite authors of all time and Far from the Madding Crowd is my second favorite of his books. His language is so beautiful that it is no surprise he was also a poet, but believe me, his real art is in his novels.

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy Jude Hawley is a stonemason, but he dreamed of being a scholar. He taught himself Greek and Latin, but being an autodidact is not enough, he dreams of going to university, but he marries unwisely. Unwise marriages are a common theme in Hardy’s books, not just in Jude the Obscure, but also Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and The Return of the Native,  his best books. Instead of Arabella, his wife, he really is in love with his cousin Sue Bridehead (not a subtle name for her  either) who also marries unwisely. However, they are free, eventually, to marry each other and yet that does not bring them happiness – anything but. This is a story of multiple bad choices, many wrought by the puritanism of society insisting on making people miserable.

Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy Well, it should be no surprise that this tragic novel by Hardy also involves some unwise marriages. Like all Hardy novels, it is atmospheric with a rich sense of place, but this one, place seems even more important. Egdon Heath has the brooding, menace of old superstitions and beliefs. The community is superstitious and cruel. Hardy must have hated the sexual mores of Victorian England, because again and again, it is people doing as society wants that makes them miserable and it is society who destroys lives with its demands and its judgments. People who are individualists, idiosyncratic and interesting are crushed by social pressure. This is actually my favorite Hardy novel, probably because the mood is so powerful.

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo I have to include Les Miserables because it was the source of such angst when I was young and to a six year war with the elementary school librarian. I cannot remember her name, which goes to show how much I disliked her, I always forget the names of people I dislike. I was in First Grade and had read all the books in those bins in the school library and began exploring the shelves that lines the library even though we would not be allowed to check them out until we were in 3rd grade. I saw Les Misérables and the title just was so intriguing. I pronounced it less miserables. I wanted to read it so badly so i told my mom and she wrote the librarian a letter asking if I could. Of course, she refused. There were a few letters and calls back and forth but the librarian insisted I could only read those books that were in the big square cubes – books I had already read. One day I called her a bourgeois fascist and was sent to the principal’s office and Mom was called in to deal with me, but where did they think I heard the term? Mom was on my side, told the principal that it was she who had explained to me that the librarian epitomized the bourgeois fascist, a rule-follower who would follow any rule, no mater how wrong it was. Anyway, that motivated Mom to take me to Bemidji and buy me my own copy of Les Miserables that I very ostentatiously read right in front of the librarian on our next class visit. After all that, the book was never quite as exciting as the battle for the book.

The Journals of Lewis & Clark by Meriwether Lewis A first person narrative of our history from one its makers. Lewis & Clark explored the west, the first non-indigenous people in many areas of the west.

Versos Sencillos – José Martí  Almost everyone knows one of the Simple Verses of José Martí by heart–Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera, yo soy un hombre sincere de donde crece la palma. I was introduced to José Martí in high school Spanish and have loved his poems ever since.  His poetry delivers profound ideas with simple words. For example, I tend a white rose in July as in January, for the true friend who gives me his frank and open hand. For the cruel one whose blows break my heart, I have neither thorn nor thistle. For him, I tend a white rose. 

Cultivo una rosa blanca,
En julio como en enero,
Para el amigo sincero
Que me da su mano franca.
Y para el cruel que me arranca
El corazón con que vivo,
Cardo ni oruga cultivo:
Cultivo la rosa blanca.

Damn! A Book of Calumnies by H.L. Mencken Mencken is one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century. Known for biting with and a sharp, cutting tongue, he was the master of the aphorism and bon mot. This is a collection of some of his most vicious and funniest prose.

In Defense of Women by H.L. Mencken: Mencken did not have a high opinion of mankind in general. His defense of women is basically women are a bad lot, but they’re not as bad as men. Interestingly, many of his predictions about women in the workplace and achieving political rights have  come true. Women still earn less than men, women do opt out of marriage. We have not moved to polyandry, but give us time. 🙂

France and England in North America by Francis Parkman is one of the great narrative histories.    I had the two volume Library of America editions that I read in college and I remember Uncle Hubert loved it so much he read it more than once. Of course, modern historians are more scrupulous about secondary sources than Parkman was so this is some unknowable place between history an historical fiction.

Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography by Theodore Roosevelt  Teddy Roosevelt was a true Renaissance man, with gifts in every field including writing. This is no boring career-polisher’s memoir.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley On the other hand, Mary Shelley did invent a new genre, science fiction. Unlike the gothic novels of the past, she avoided the supernatural and focused on science for something completely new.

Dracula by Bram Stoker Bram Stoker did not invent the horror genre, but he gave us the most memorable and evocative monster of them all.

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter This is a childhood favorite, a book my Mom loved. Elnora is a sort of Cinders of the Swamp, but she is not seeking a prince, she wants an education and she works to finance it by capturing moths and butterflies and selling specimens  of wildlife from the Limberlost, a real wildlife swamp area that has disappeared now thanks to logging and development. Her mother resents her because her father died when she was born. She buried her heart with her husband and takes out her grief on Elnora. However, neighbors and friends help Elnora work toward her dreams. This is also a romance when she falls in love with Phillip who is already engaged to another woman – of course one not worthy of him, but that’s standard for romances. It’s an engaging story and one I remember fondly from high school.

Walden by Henry Thoreau Before No Labels, there was Henry Thoreau and he was as counterculture then as he would be today. He wanted to know himself, the natural man, not the man in society and with technology, so off he goes to be a near hermit for a couple years and experience life without the hustle and bustle of modern society (and it was a modern society to him even if it seems not so to us). Trains and telegraphs were connecting us faster and more closely and he was not sure that was a good thing. With even more technology, faster and more ubiquitous communications and with everyone being “connected”, Walden is a good reminder that we need space to unplug, to be alone with ourselves, to be outside of time.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy You know, when you read these old classics like Anna Karenina and Hardy’s books, you realize that despite the public prudery of the 19th century, people were still the same. The great books reveal that again and again. Most people are familiar with the story of Anna Karenina because of the movie, but the book is even better. There is such honesty in this book, there is this devastating moment when Anna confesses her adultery to her husband and he is so close to forgiving her, to loving her. It was so real and so tragic, this man who really wants to choose love but cannot for the same of his honor, his self-respect, because people know, because he would seem a fool. That kind of understanding of human nature is precious and Tolstoy really seems to understand humanity.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy  I do not understand why War and Peace is viewed as a chore to read. Maybe it should be named Gone with the Ice? War and Peace is a historical romance, full of love, romance, sinister plotting, love affairs, court intrigue and warfare. There are assassination attempts, suicide attempts, imprisonment and financial ruin. This book really has everything. There is the sinister brother and sister duo of Hélène and Anatole, who may or may not be in an incestuous relationship. There is the naive and lovely Natasha who falls into their web. There are so many characters – and perhaps that is why people resist, because there are so many, but they are all so vividly portrayed that they are not confusing. Some people find Russian names confusing, so here is a guide.

Memoirs of Marguerite of Valois, Queen of Navarre by Marguerite of Valois. There are so many court memoirs particularly from France where it was very much the fashion. Marguerite had plenty of time for writing after her brother imprisoned her for 18 years. I love how blatantly self-serving she is in her memoir. Best of all, she writes with immediacy and verve, making me wonder if she really wrote it – and she did. She was the daughter of Catherine de Medici and was an eyewitness to the turbulent years of her regency and her brothers struggles for the crown and describes the attempted assassination of Admiral Coligny. After the assassination attempt, Coligny sent our seventh great-grandfather Pierre Mabille to Holland to request military support, though the Massacre of St. Bartholomew came too quickly for help to arrive.

My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse – The first of many Jeeves and Wooster novels. Get this one, then get the rest. These are fun, light-hearted and easy reads that will make you laugh out loud.

 

 

 

 

 

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