I selected Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter for three not so exciting reasons. 1. I have the book on hand. 2. Nearly all of the books I am interested in or enjoy come after the public domain works. 3. I happen to enjoy this one.
With that out of the way, The Scarlet Letter is available on all four resources: Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, HATHITrust, and Google Books. Let us go down the list and see what we have here.
Project Gutenberg is available in a variety of formats: HTML, EPUB (no images), Kindle, Plucker, QiOO Mobile, and Plain Text UTF8. It isn’t clear what edition of the text the HTML version is based on, only that this version of the ebook was first released in 1992, produced by Dartmouth College, but has been updated in 2005. The HTML version contains all of the materials you might find in a print version of the book, such as biographical information, a list of works, and an editor’s note, but as this is HTML, there was no effort here either for the text itself to resemble a printed book, or to take advantage of some of the possibilities of the ebook format.
A few of the other formats seem unfamiliar to me, and others require programs or e-readers to view. Alas, being a non-Kindle user, I moved on to the online reader, which divides the novel into pages, serving as an alternative to scrolling through the text. But the online reader does little else to mediate or alter the text.
The Internet Archive provides what appears to be three versions of the manuscript, but on closer inspection they are all identical copies of the HTML format of The Scarlet Letter taken directly from Project Gutenberg. The site provides a space for reviews (presumably for opinions on the quality of the e-copy or perhaps even the novel itself). It is also interesting to know that the novel has been downloaded 1,848 times.
Typing The Scarlet Letter into the search bar of HATHITrust yielded 931,602 results. Woah. Could I narrow this down? I clicked the option for “full text only,” and with my results narrowed, I happily clicked the search button only to be bombarded by 480,863 results. Hm. What if I clicked “Nathanial Hawthorne” as the author. That brought me down to 720 results. Perhaps my search was still off, but I decided that this was the best I was going to get.
I apologize for not having mustered the time or the patience to search through 720 results, although I suspected that the correct items would be found on the first page. First, a word on the functions of the site: HATHITrust provides a few limited options of viewing the text, but these only amount to zooming and flipping pages (or scrolling). The search function is quite nice and works well, although any Word or PDF file has this capability.
Going right down the list, the first selection brought me to a scanned copy of the 1889 Boston Houghton, Mifflin and Company version of the text, featuring black splotches and lines, and even a Due Date card in the back. In all other respects, however, this appeared to be a fairly well-done copy, and I would rather download a PDF of something that resembles a book rather than an HTML version that appears like a poorly designed web page.
How did the other copies fair? Well, it turns out many of them were duplicates, but one version caught my eye: The Scarlet Letter “with illustrations of the author, his environment and the setting of the book; together with a foreword and descriptive captions by Basil Davenport,” published in 1948. And the illustration? Well, it scanned quite well, I suppose. Hawthrorne does sport his mustache with pride.
Finding most of the copies of HATHITrust in respectable shape, I moved on to the last resource: Google Books. Having already sorted through Project Gutenberg’s wide variety of formats, The Internet Archive’s borrowing the most simplistic format (HTML) from Project Gutenberg, and HATHITrust’s large quantity of nearly identical copies (available for download as PDFs), I was ready for whatever Google Books had in store.
Typing “The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne” of course yielded many, many results, but I could see right away that only one was an actual copy of the text. Here I found a scanned copy of the text from the 1898 Doubleday and McClure Co. edition. And yes, this one also features a stunning illustration of Nathanial Hawthorne and his mustache. Google Books gives you the option to download the book in Plain Text, PDF, and EPUB formats. The quality of the copy itself is quite good, from what I can tell. But more importantly, Google placed some effort in supporting some unique features. In addition to the search function, clicking a chapter title in the table of contents will bring you to the correct page. This is a long ways from a hypertext version of the novel, but Google certainly took a step in the right direction.
Ultimately, I was not overly impressed with any version of the text, although I did not experience any of the extreme formatting issues Duguid encountered while researching Tristan Shandy. Moreover, as all copies are free to use for whatever purposes you may desire, I suppose I shouldn’t be one to complain. Google Books provided the most impressive copy of the text, even though I would still prefer my own hard copy of the novel next to a scanned e-copy with a search function. I consider my $4 well spent. I can imagine a more robust hypertext version of The Scarlet Letter, but perhaps that is a blog post for another day.