Find a great e-book to read online with these sites

Those crazy enough to want to read books online have several good site options, ranging from Google Books to Project Gutenberg. Here's an overview.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
6 min read

If you're an avid reader, and you don't want to pick up a Kindle or a book from your local library, several Web sites let you read while you're surfing the Web.

Admittedly, the experience is less than ideal. Those of us who already spend time staring at a computer screen for work don't necessarily want to stare at a screen to read a book. I should also note that not all the books the sites offer will feature the kind of content you love. Many of the services offer many out-of-print books or classics due to copyright disputes. That said, using these sites, I still think you will find at least some titles that will suit your fancy.

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Alex Catalogue of Electronic Books: As someone who focuses much of my time reading history and philosophy works, Alex Catalogue of Electronic Books is an ideal site for me.

The majority of titles on Alex Catalogue of Electronic Books includes great literary works over the past few hundred years. The site also has prominent titles on Western history and philosophy. They range from books by Niccolo Machiavelli to Ralph Waldo Emerson. When you click on a title you're interested in, the site quickly delivers the text.

I was generally impressed by the Alex Catalogue. Although I would have liked to see more historical content on the site, the books that are available were worth checking out. And thanks to a quick load time, it made the site all the more useful. You can also print the texts so you don't need to sit at your computer screen to read them.

Alex Catalogue
The Alex Catalogue features some great historical content. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

AskSam: AskSam is an interesting site. It doesn't feature nearly as many books as I would have liked (in fact, it has just a handful of classics), but it makes several documents available that make it a viable alternative for those who aren't necessarily looking to read an e-book online.

When you first get to AskSam, you'll see a listing of some of the "classics" it has available. When you click on those titles, you can typically read them on the site. A few books require you to download the text, but those are few and far between. Overall, the selection is poor. I would have liked to see more books. But in the end, it didn't detract too much from the service.

I found that AskSam's extras provided the most value. They include several interesting documents, like a collection of all the speeches President Barack Obama has recited, legislative texts, transcripts on important political events, and more. It's a nice collection to sift through. And if you don't want to read them online, they can all be printed out from your browser.

AskSam features important documents to check out. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

Bartleby: Bartleby provides one of the best online reading experiences in this roundup. Combining a massive collection of titles with a site design that easily bests the competition, it's a site you'll want to try out.

When I first got to Bartleby, the selection of titles the site offers impressed me. It's not huge, but the sheer diversity of the titles is enough for you to find at least one or two books you'll probably want to read. The site allows you to either search for titles at the top of the page or browse its catalog. When you finally find a book you want to read, you can see its context, check out some of its first lines, or dig right in. I read a Robert Frost book on the site. I was able to jump around in the book without any trouble. I could also print it out if I didn't feel like reading it online.

I really liked Bartleby. The site is well designed. Finding books takes no time. And the selection of titles, while a little small, was quite diverse.

Robert Frost's North of Boston is on Bartleby. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

Google Books: Google Books has been in the news quite a bit lately over concerns that Google's settlement with publishers was unfair to authors and competitors. Regardless, it's a great service in its current form.

Google Books features the familiar, simple design that has become a signature of the search giant. You can either look for titles in the search box at the top of the page or sift through the many titles listed on the front page.

Depending on which title you pick, you'll notice that not all titles can be read fully on the site. There are a slew of titles that are in the "public domain" and can be read from cover to cover. Other titles are under copyright restrictions and cannot be fully read on the site. All told, Google claims that Google Books features more than 7 million titles. Over 1 million books are in the public domain and fully available on the site.

Google provides you an option on the left of the page to buy any book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or other retailers. You can also download public domain works and print them out if you'd like. Overall, Google Search is an outstanding service. And with so many titles, it's probably the most likely to satisfy your desire for online books.

Google Books
Google Books features several books worth checking out. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

Great Books and Classics: Great Books and Classics delivers a fine library of titles that will undoubtedly appeal to those who want more than new books.

My favorite feature on Great Books and Classics is that you can sift through the titles based on time period. So if you want to read books that were written in ancient times, simply click on the period you want and all the titles will appear. If you're looking to check out books that were written just a few hundred years ago, you can pick that period and browse those titles.

I was generally happy with the load times. That said, I would have liked a white background while reading all the books. Some titles featured a yellow background that made it a little difficult to read. I should also note that printing each book is difficult, since the service indexes each title into pages. You'll need to click on different links to make your way through the book. Printing is possible, it will just take a lot of work. Great Books and Classics is a nice service, but it needs a few updates to make it compete on the same level as some of the competition.

Great Books
Pick the time period you want at Great Books and Classics. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

Perseus Digital Library: As a history buff, I really like Perseus Digital Library. It features several original works from the Greek and Roman ages that are ideal for anyone who wants to study that period in history.

When you first get to Perseus Digital Library, you won't be blown away by its design. In fact, it's quite poor. But if you're a history buff, you'll certainly be impressed by its collection of titles. Books on topics ranging from Ancient Greece to 19th century America are included in the catalog. You can also print them out for offline viewing.

Although you can check out many of the works on the site, I was disappointed that it loaded so slowly. It will take some time to access the books. In fact, many of the books I tried to read wouldn't load at all. It was a major issue with the site.

Perseus Digital Library also lets you research artifacts. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

Project Gutenberg: Project Gutenberg is one of the most well-known online book services. It features a great search service and has several titles that are worth checking out.

Project Gutenberg features the best search of any service in this roundup. You can find titles based on title, author, or keyword. I searched for books on World War II and the ancient Roman civilization. In both cases, the service returned several results of books I thought were interesting.

When you find a book you want to read, you can quickly view it in your browser. You can also listen to an accompanying audio book. If you'd like, you can even print it out and view it on paper. I was really impressed by the site.

Project Gutenberg
Project Gutenberg provides audio books, as well as e-books. Screenshot by Don Reisinger/CNET

My top three

1. Google Books: With so many titles, Google Books is an obvious choice for the best service in this roundup.

2. Bartleby: Bartleby has a big catalog and a great design. Check it out.

3. Project Gutenberg: If you want enjoy the best search experience in this roundup, Project Gutenberg is for you.

Corrected at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday: This story initially miscast the current controversy over Google Books.