Long before space travel, there was great science fiction

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Let’s travel through time to the books of the distant past — so distant, in fact, that the authors are long dead and their writings are now free.

Project Gutenberg is a vast collection of classic books in the public domain (most copyrights expire 70 years after an author’s death), ready to transport you to fascinating worlds free of charge on your Kindle or mobile device. There are many different categories on Gutenberg (autobiographies, histories, books about calculus); today I’ll focus on classic fiction.

Non-fiction accounts for the majority of my bookshelf, but reading fiction — especially the old stuff — is a totally different experience. It allows you to switch off the learning-and-doing part of your brain and engage exclusively in imagination and exploration. That’s fun in and of itself, but when you make it a habit, it can also give your brain more fuel for creativity and insight when you switch back to getting things done.

Here’s a sampling of some of the most popular public domain classic fiction. You can find these and about 53,000 more at gutenberg.org.

  • Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

  • Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)

  • 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Around The World In 80 Days (Jules Verne)

  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Lost World (Arthur Conan Doyle)

  • The Time Machine (H.G. Wells)

  • Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson)

  • A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)

  • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll)

  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum)

  • The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde)

  • Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)

Choose your favorite of any of those authors, and there are usually quite a few lesser-known but equally great books by each of them.

I love classic fiction because it’s an opportunity to experience first-hand a book that has made a sweeping, sometimes very subtle impact on popular culture.

All the books referenced above are household names, but each one has also contributed little turns of phrase and storylines that are repeated again and again in modern life, often without us even realizing it. It’s not unusual to encounter a character or concept that you take for granted as a staple of our common culture — but in fact, you’re reading the first time it ever appeared on a page.

This is especially fun for the books that have been converted into Disney movies, because the originals are so incredibly weird (and in some cases entirely unsuitable for anything rated G). The Lost Boys of Peter Pan (who were abandoned by their caretakers after falling out of their strollers) and the copious hallucinogenic experiences in Alice and The Wizard of Oz are just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s also a window into the mindset of great writers who lived centuries ago. The elaborate opium dens and casual cocaine use in Sherlock Holmes and the whirlwind of cultures and cities in Around The World in 80 Days are snapshots of a strange world the authors took for granted as normal.

I’m fascinated by the authors’ guesses at a future that is now our present. The science fiction in 20,000 Leagues, for example, is all about submarine travel. (It was published in 1870, in the early years of submarine development.) There are some areas that are startlingly prescient, and others that seem absurd in the context of modern science, like the fact that the people walk on the sea floor with no concern for water pressure and a submarine navigates under Antarctica to arrive at an open sea at the South Pole.

I can’t help but think this is exactly how future nerds will feel when they watch Star Trek in 150 years.

Before we wrap, a quick note about putting Gutenberg books on your mobile device or Kindle. Head to m.gutenberg.org for the mobile-friendly site. Each book will have an option for either a Kindle or MOBI download. If you click these links in your mobile browser, your Kindle app should load the book, and you’re good to go. You can also navigate directly to that URL on a physical Kindle device. (There’s also an EPUB format, which works in iBooks and other free reader apps.)

Start with the Top 100 list or just search an intriguing author or title. The fantasies of the past await.