(tl;dr — if you want to skip this essay and just try out my search tool, it’s here.)
Last fall, I wrote about the concept of “rewilding your attention” — why it’s good to step away from the algorithmic feeds of big social media and find stranger stuff in nooks of the Internet.
I followed it up with a post about “9 Ways to Rewild Your Attention” — various strategies I’d developed to hunt down unexpected material.
One of those strategies? “Reading super-old books online.”
Any book published in the U.S. before 1925 is in the public domain, so you can do amazingly fun book-browsing online. I’ll go to Archive.org or Google Books and pump in a search phrase, then see what comes up. (In Google Books, sort the results by date — pick a range that ends in 1924 — and by “full view,” and you’ll get public-domain books that are free to read entirely.)
I cannot recommend this more highly. The amount of fascinating stuff you can encounter in old books and magazines is delightful.
I still do this! Old books are socially and culturally fascinating; they give you a glimpse into how much society has changed, and also what’s remained the same. The writing styles can be delightfully archaic, but also sometimes amazingly fresh. Nonfiction writers from 1780 can be colloquial and funny as hell.
And man, they wrote about everything. Back in those centuries they wrote books about falling in love via telegraph wires, and about long-distance balloon travel. They wrote books that soberly praised eugenics, and ones that inveighed against it. They published exuberant magazines of men’s fashion and books on how to adopt vegetarian diets. The past being the past, there’s a ton of flat-out nativism, racism, and gibbering misogyny — but also people fighting against that, too.
It’s rarely dull.
Still, sifting through old books can be a hassle. You have to go to those search sites and filter for the right vintage (and…