The National Emergency Library Makes 1.5 Million Books Free to Read Right Now

The coro­n­avirus has closed libraries in coun­tries all around the world. Or rather, it’s closed phys­i­cal libraries: each week of strug­gle against the epi­dem­ic that goes by, more resources for books open to the pub­lic on the inter­net. Most recent­ly, we have the Inter­net Archive’s open­ing of the Nation­al Emer­gency Library, “a col­lec­tion of books that sup­ports emer­gency remote teach­ing, research activ­i­ties, inde­pen­dent schol­ar­ship, and intel­lec­tu­al stim­u­la­tion while uni­ver­si­ties, schools, train­ing cen­ters, and libraries are closed.” While the “nation­al” in the name refers to the Unit­ed States, where the Inter­net Archive oper­ates, any­one in the world can read its near­ly 1.5 mil­lion books, imme­di­ate­ly and with­out wait­lists, from now “through June 30, 2020, or the end of the US nation­al emer­gency, whichev­er is lat­er.”

“Not to be sneezed at is the sheer plea­sure of brows­ing through the titles,” writes The New York­er’s Jill Lep­ore of the Nation­al Emer­gency Library, going on to men­tion such vol­umes as How to Suc­ceed in Singing, Inter­est­ing Facts about How Spi­ders Live, and An Intro­duc­tion to Kant’s Phi­los­o­phy, as well as “Beck­ett on Proust, or Bloom on Proust, or just On Proust.” A his­to­ri­an of Amer­i­ca, Lep­ore finds her­self remind­ed of the Coun­cil on Books in Wartime, “a col­lec­tion of libraries, book­sellers, and pub­lish­ers, found­ed in 1942.” On the premise that “books are use­ful, nec­es­sary, and indis­pens­able,” the coun­cil “picked over a thou­sand vol­umes, from Vir­ginia Woolf’s The Years to Ray­mond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and sold the books, around six cents a copy, to the U.S. mil­i­tary.” By prac­ti­cal­ly giv­ing away 120 mil­lion copies of such books, the project “cre­at­ed a nation of read­ers.”

In fact, the Coun­cil on Books in Wartime cre­at­ed more than a nation of read­ers: the Amer­i­can “sol­diers and sailors and Army nurs­es and any­one else in uni­form” who received these books passed them along, or even left them behind in the far-flung places they’d been sta­tioned. Haru­ki Muraka­mi once told the Paris Review of his youth in Kobe, “a port city where many for­eign­ers and sailors used to come and sell their paper­backs to the sec­ond­hand book­shops. I was poor, but I could buy paper­backs cheap­ly. I learned to read Eng­lish from those books and that was so excit­ing.” See­ing as Muraka­mi him­self lat­er trans­lat­ed The Big Sleep into his native Japan­ese, it’s cer­tain­ly not impos­si­ble that an Armed Ser­vices Edi­tion count­ed among his pur­chas­es back then.

Now, in trans­la­tions into Eng­lish and oth­er lan­guages as well, we can all read Murakami’s work — nov­els like Nor­we­gian Wood and Kaf­ka on the Shore, short-sto­ry col­lec­tions like The Ele­phant Van­ish­es, and even the mem­oir What I Talk About When I Talk About Run­ning — free at the Nation­al Emer­gency Library. The most pop­u­lar books now avail­able include every­thing from Mar­garet Atwood’s The Hand­maid­’s Tale to the Kama SutraDr. Seuss’s ABC to Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Sto­ries to Tell in the Dark (and its two sequels), Chin­ua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to, in dis­con­cert­ing first place, Sylvia Browne’s End of Days: Pre­dic­tions and Prophe­cy About the End of the World. You’ll even find, in the orig­i­nal French as well as Eng­lish trans­la­tion, Albert Camus’ exis­ten­tial epi­dem­ic nov­el La Peste, or The Plague, fea­tured ear­li­er this month here on Open Cul­ture. And if you’d rather not con­front its sub­ject mat­ter at this par­tic­u­lar moment, you’ll find more than enough to take your mind else­where. Enter the Nation­al Emer­gency Library here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices

The Inter­net Archive “Lib­er­ates” Books Pub­lished Between 1923 and 1941, and Will Put 10,000 Dig­i­tized Books Online

11,000 Dig­i­tized Books From 1923 Are Now Avail­able Online at the Inter­net Archive

Free: You Can Now Read Clas­sic Books by MIT Press on

Enter “The Mag­a­zine Rack,” the Inter­net Archive’s Col­lec­tion of 34,000 Dig­i­tized Mag­a­zines

Use Your Time in Iso­la­tion to Learn Every­thing You’ve Always Want­ed To: Free Online Cours­es, Audio Books, eBooks, Movies, Col­or­ing Books & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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