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Blog – Posted on Monday, Jan 11

The Ultimate Guide to Public Domain Books in 2021

We bet our hats that when the clocks struck twelve on New Year’s Eve you were adding “read more classic books” to your list of New Year’s resolutions. If not, maybe you should’ve been. Because as luck would have it, at that very moment, a new stack of public domain books suddenly became available to read. Essentially, this means that previously copyrighted classic works of literature can now be yours for free! But let’s dig a little deeper.

What are public domain books?

When a book has “entered the public domain”, its copyright has expired and the material now belongs to the general public. Not only does this mean that anybody can creatively reinvent that original work without paying a penny — producing such beauty as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — but also that this book is now free for anyone to read.

Of course, if you want to read the books that topped the 2020 bestseller lists free of charge, you’ll be waiting a very long time (95 years, as it stands). But thousands of books, including many that we consider to be the best books of all time, have already entered the public domain. So if you're looking for super-accessible book club books, the public domain is a great place to start!

How to find public domain books

You might think that getting your hands on free books won’t be easy — but think again! There are loads of online projects working to transcribe public domain books and make them available on a wide range of reading devices. 

Project Gutenberg is perhaps the best-known destination for public domain books, and certainly one of the oldest. But both Hathi Trust and Internet Archive also have huge digital repositories, containing millions of titles, and Standard Ebooks is a great source for beautifully formatted and typeset ebooks. 

When do books enter the public domain?

Long story short:

  • As of 2021, any book published before 1926 is definitely yours to read for free (and use without permission),
  • Any book published after 1963 is still firmly in copyright, and
  • Books published between those two dates, in what the New York Public Library calls the “Renewal Era,” is where things get more complicated.

Prior to 1964, books had a 28-year copyright term, unless renewed by the author for a further 28 years. This required form-filling and admin, and apparently most authors just couldn’t be bothered, because 75% didn’t renew. So the copyrights on their books expired and those books became public domain (woo-hoo!). 

However, any author who published work after 1923 and managed to renew it got to slip through the net and keep their copyright to themselves. Due to a series of new laws, that copyright term was eventually extended to 95 years — which meant that no new works became public domain between 1998 and 2018 (a long drought of two decades for readers).

As a result, January 1st 2019 was a momentous day: a pile of new books entered the public domain for the first time in more than twenty years. And since then, there have been new books in the public domain on the first day of every year. In 2019, the copyright for books published in 1923 expired. In 2020, the copyright for works published in 1924 expired. And so on and so forth, bringing us now to 2021.

Psst...you can find out whether or not a book is in the public domain over here.

New public domain books to read in 2021

The long and short of all this is that, effective 1st of January 2021, all works first published or released before January 1, 1926 became yours to have, to read, and to adapt! And what a year it was for literature. The full list is, shall we say, a little rough to navigate, so to make life easier we’ve gathered together twelve of your best bets — and they’re all gems. 

1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Without a doubt, the headliner of this year’s list is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. If you’ve so far managed to miss out on reading this great American masterpiece, then 2021 is the perfect opportunity. Now available at the low low price of completely free, there’s nothing to stop you from diving beneath the shimmering surface of the world of Jay Gatsby — a mysterious millionaire whose secret obsession will cause his unravelling in the hot New York summer of 1922. 

If you’re familiar with this haunting contemplation of the American dream and are after some pastiche, then you’re in luck: Michael Farris Smith has already made the most of this newly public-domained work, releasing Nick, an epic portrait of the man behind the narrator, in early January.

2. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

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Many more people have heard of Virginia Woolf than have actually read her works, largely because her vivid stream-of-consciousness storytelling has a reputation for being quite challenging. But now that Mrs Dalloway has entered the public domain, you can accept the challenge with no commitment. It’s the ultimate satisfaction-or-your-money-back guarantee! 

This probing, gentle portrait of a day in one woman’s life is one of the most important novels of the 20th century, and an excellent introduction to Woolf’s work. Plus, in our humble opinion, her writing contains some of the most beautiful sentences ever written in English.

3. In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway

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Hemingway’s first published work, and the first of his books to become public domain (with more coming soon — Hemingway fans, get excited), In Our Time is a collection of short fiction about life before, during, and after WWI. Like most Hemingway novels, it is a catalog of suffering, loss, and loneliness, soaked in alcohol and overrun with violence: matadors are gored to death, cabinet ministers are lined up and shot, and Black men hang in a county jail. As well as an introduction to many of the themes that run through Hemingway’s later works, In Our Time also provides us with a flavour of his sparse prose, and our first glimpse of the recurring character Nick Adams — making it essential reading for any Hemingway fan.

4. The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

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With over seventy novels, plays, and short stories to her name, Agathie Christie is one of history’s most prolific writers, and her world-renowned mysteries have been steadily falling out of copyright and into the public domain for several years (lucky us!). The Secret of Chimneys is the first to feature Scotland Yard’s Superintendent Battle, a man of stolid good sense who will be replaced by the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in the next four years’ releases — so enjoy him while you can! Otherwise, The Secret of Chimneys is classic Christie: a murder on a well-to-do estate, red herrings and misdirections, and lashings of unexpected twists. You can’t really go wrong.

5. The New Negro by Alain LeRoy Locke

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If you’re familiar with the Harlem Renaissance, then you may have heard of Alain LeRoy Locke, the man who is widely considered to be the father of that intellectual explosion. Perhaps you’ve even heard of The New Negro, for this 1925 anthology, edited by Locke, gave its name to the Harlem Renaissance — a revival of African-American literature and art known then as the “New Negro Movement”. Between its covers are stunning works of prose, poetry, and nonfiction by seminal Black voices, including Langston Hughes, W.E.B Du Bois, and Zora Neale-Hurston. This is a meticulously curated celebration of the Black creativity of the era.

6. Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

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Arrowsmith, which chronicles a doctor’s rise through the scientific community, was written by Nobel Laureate Sinclair Lewis with the help of science writer Paul de Kruif — whose real-life expertise brings a heavy reality to this sharp-witted, satirical commentary on the state of American medicine. It is widely considered Lewis’s most accomplished novel, earning him the Pulitzer Prize the year after its publication. But he notably refused the prize, claiming that the committee was too narrow-minded in deeming any novel the “best of the year”. Of course, he accepted when the Nobel prize came in 1930.

7. Those Barren Leaves by Aldous Huxley

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It’ll be a few years before Aldous Huxley’s genre-defining Brave New World drops into the public domain. But while we wait for Huxley’s sci-fi classic, we can chew over his deliciously satirical novel about the human tendency to feign sophistication. Those Barren Leaves finds a group of socialites gathered at the Italian palace of Mrs Aldwinkle. Among the guests: a popular novelist who records her affair with another guest for future material; a broke and crusty intellectual pursuing a mentally-disabled heiress; and working man Mr. Falx, whose student in socialism, the charming Lord Hovendon, grows distracted by young love. Were this another Agatha Christie novel, this sundry cast would find themselves tied together by a mysterious murder. Instead, they’re united by their posing and pretensions — to our equal enjoyment.

8. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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A storyteller to rival Dickens, Theodore Dreiser happened to write a true crime novel before the genre even existed, when he took a notorious murder case as his point of departure and penned An American Tragedy. In Clyde Griffiths, the novel’s tragic hero, Dreiser paints a haunting portrait of an impoverished and insecure social climber, whose naive dreams of self-betterment drive him to commit a desperate and unforgivable act of violence. Around Clyde, Dreiser paints in intricate detail the landscape of early twentieth-century America — its economic pressures, hypocrisies, and political corruption. This is not only a riveting true crime story, but also a heartbreaking social commentary with mythic force.

9. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

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A firm favorite for Hollywood adaptations, The Painted Veil is a proto-feminist book about a young woman’s spiritual awakening (predictably published to a storm of protest in 1925). Kitty Fane is the young woman in question, a beautiful but shallow socialite married to a man she doesn’t care for. Unsatisfied and love-starved, she starts an illicit affair with an exciting and attractive young man. But when her husband discovers her adultery, he exacts a strange and terrible vengeance, forcing her to accompany him to a remote village in China, where her awakening conscience compels her to grow.

10. A Daughter of the Samurai by Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto

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A Daughter of the Samurai is the memoir of a determined and keenly observant young woman who must navigate a path between two very different cultures. Raised the beloved daughter of a high-ranking samurai, Etsu Sugimoto had always been certain of her future in her community as a Buddhist priestess. But, as a young teenager, she had to leave behind the only world she knew for an arranged marriage in the United States. Sugimoto is alive to the contradictions, ironies, and beauties of both cultures, as she learns both how to be a Japanese wife, and how to get by in nineteenth-century Ohio. Her memoir gives us a rare insight into the struggles and strengths of that first generation of Japanese immigrants.

11. Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos

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In Manhattan Transfer John Dos Passos constructs an impressionistic portrait of New York City in the early 1920s. Using experimental montage techniques borrowed from cinema, he captures the fragmented lives of a colorful cast of characters in a series of overlapping vignettes — from wealthy brokers to penniless immigrants, dockside crapshooters to high-society flappers. The result is a kaleidoscope of the modern city: filled with life, drama, and human tragedy, everyone struggling to become a part of a great, futuristic machine, before they are destroyed by it.

12. The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton

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A great chronicler of upper-class American Society, Edith Wharton forged a path of unparalleled creativity and literary acclaim in the early twentieth century, earning herself the Pulitzer Prize in 1920 for her examination of high society milieu, The Age of Innocence. As the first female writer to win the prize, and one of America’s most beloved authors, who better to walk you through The Writing of Fiction? In brilliant prose, Wharton reflects on the craft of writing — from the telling of a short story, to the construction of a novel, to the importance of character development and beyond. Her advice has truly stood the test of time, and provides glimmers of insight that can only be gleaned from one of the greats.

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If you'd rather read the latest hits, check out the 21 best novels written in the 21st century!

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