Net gains: As you like it

I don't know if somebody has sat down and worked out exactly how many words are floating around on the Internet these days, but it must run into hundreds of billions. Unfortunately, not many of them are worth reading. However, now that computers can cope with shifting huge chunks of text around with relative ease, it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to work out that somebody would start sticking classic literature on the Internet.

Talking of which, Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary detective has come out of copyright and promptly found his way onto the Net (at least, 48 out of the 60 short stories have; the rest are still protected in America, although they're out of copyright in Europe). Although it's easier now to read dense text off a computer screen than it used to be, the strain of reading directly off-screen or the hassle of printing out always seems rather laborious, bearing in mind that you can buy Sherlock Holmes collections pretty cheaply. But if free is your thing, then you can't really beat something like this. The archive also has the classic pictures from Strand magazine, where the stories were originally published, as well as links to other Holmes sites.

Copyright laws have never stopped particularly enthusiastic Netheads, although I haven't found any sites blatantly publishing really recent material. One of the biggest archives of online classics is the Organisation for Community Networks' Electronic Bookshelf, which has the full text of dozens of books, raging from Moby Dick to Sense and Sensibility and even The Wizard of Oz. Again, it's difficult to imagine anybody reading the entire novel on their screens, but it can be handy if you just want to look something up.

Legally, though, Shakespeare is comfortably in the clear. One site devotes itself to Richard III, with a hypertext version of the play and a series of pages looking at its historical background. By far the most impressive Shakespeare collection of classic online literature, however, is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's site, which contains the complete works. Not only can you pull up the text of any play, but you can even do a word search across the complete works. Bet you didn't know that the phrase "Ides of March" appears seven times in Julius Caesar but not once in any other of his plays.

The archive also contains a huge back catalogue of classical Roman and Greek plays and writing, including the Odyssey, Iliad and my favourite classic, Aesop's Fables.

Who could have imagined that one of the best things on the Internet would turn out to have been written thousands of years ago? That's irony for you.

www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/andrew.cmu.edu/usr18/mset/www/holmes.html

221B Baker Street. The best starting point for Sherlock Holmes fans.

classics.mit.edu

MIT's classic's archive.

the-tech.mit.edu/Shakespeare

MIT's Shakespeare archive, includes a built-in search engine.

www.ofcn.org/cyber.serv/resource/bookshelf

Organization for Community Networks online book archive

SITE UNSEEN

www.r3.org/intro.html

The Richard III Historical Society's home page

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