I just learned that Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg has passed away.

I met him once in April of 2006. He gave an overview talk on Project Gutenberg in the building I worked in on campus. I assumed they had flown him over for the talk and was surprised to discover he was a native of the town and that my campus was the birth place of Project Gutenberg. Even more surprising was birth date: July 4th, 1971. I had no idea how much it predated the Web.

His talk was very animated and timely—-Google Books was new on the scene, and while no device using e-ink displays had been launched, there were commercial ebook readers on the market. Not surprisingly, copyright was a big theme in his talk.

I had always known of Project Gutenberg—-it had been one of the earliest web sites on the Internet. While I always lauded their goals, I questioned the site’s utility. I’d never been able to read texts on my computer for long periods of time, and never imagined anything replacing the joys of a physical book.

After the talk I expressed my sentiments to him. I was pleasantly surprised to find out he and I shared a number of similar preferences when it came to computers. He understood the concern about reading on computer screens, and had put a lot of effort into optimizing the experience. Like me, he preferred reading long passages of text on a monospace terminal font—-white text on a black background. His preferred web browser was Lynx, which I was also very fond of, and often used when reading lots of documentation on the web.

You give me some hope,” I said. “But I’m not a laptop person. [1] With a physical book I can sit and read anywhere, whereas otherwise I’d have to sit on an uncomfortable chair staring at the computer.”

Try one of the handheld PDA’s,” was his response. “You can get a used one for fairly cheap these days.”

I initially balked at the thought. Growing up in the days before rechargeable batteries could retain much power, I disliked most battery operated tools. Nevertheless, given our common tastes, if it worked for him, then it could for me.

I had an old Sony Clie sitting around—-I had bought it in 2002 and never really put it to much use. I went to the Project Gutenberg web site and downloaded Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle [2] as well as The Arabian Nights.

And it really wasn’t a pain to read. Still not as good as a physical book, but much better than reading on a computer screen. I began to carry it around with me—-there was never a shortage of boring lectures I could choose to read it in. [3]

We exchanged a few emails over the next two months. He was nice enough to volunteer to lend me some of his PDA’s that he had sitting around. I found out he lived within walking distance of me. I had always planned to take him out for lunch to have further conversations with him (he really was one of those intellectually stimulating characters). Alas, I never got around to it, and it will never be.

Last November I bought a Sony ebook reader. [4] I like to think it would never have happened had he not urged me to try reading on a PDA. Since then I’ve read a few books from Project Gutenberg.

Project Gutenberg had been his life and career. Five days before his passing he announced that he had accepted a job in Hawaii and would try to hand over Project Gutenberg to others, citing his health as a factor. Having lived a very frugal existence, he did not have the best access to medical care.

I do hope whoever takes over the project does so with the same zeal as he did.

[1]I’m still not.
[2]He was also the author of the book There Will Be Blood is based on. This guy really hated capitalism.
[3]I never did finish reading either one. The Jungle was good, but not great. And The Arabian Nights is really in need of a translation with liberties taken. Another headache is that the Clie’s internal memory is reset if your battery ever runs out. A royal pain.
[4]My first purchase on a Black Friday sale.