Harrods for Everything

August 1, 2020

Harrods for Everything is the apt title of a huge 1,525-page catalogue from about 1912, produced by the famous London department store which is still in existence today.


Some idea of the vast quantity of items that Harrods stocked or had available to order can be taken from the general index, which runs for 68 pages, five columns to a page. The catalogue illustrates over 15,000 products. While many customers would visit the store, or have their provisions delivered by Harrods’s own fleet of vans that covered London and the outlying suburbs, they also had perfected shopping by telephone – something we think of now as a modern invention. As they put it in their advert (on p. 1524 of the catalogue):



While you could buy all the sorts of things you would expect in a modern large department store, because of the time period you will find some things that are uncommon in most households now, like churns for making butter.

The Victorians and Edwardians had a penchant for cures for this, that, and the other, with various powders or preparations sold for all manner of ailments, and you could buy things like chloroform or throat pastilles in dozens of varieties, even those containing cocaine!

While most domestic appliances still required manual application, the use of electricity was starting to become more widespread. From a company called Ferranti you could buy electric stoves, fires, and irons. But the high cost of electricity (4d a unit, equivalent to £2/US$2.50 in today’s money), meant the larger houses, hotels, offices, and public buildings often had their own generators. Harrods could supply and fit these, of course.

Looking through the provisions department lists, you will notice examples from brands such as Cadbury’s and Crosse & Blackwell’s (British) or Lindt (Swiss), and you could buy American chewing gum or Californian peaches. But some items stand out from a bygone age like turtle soup, and I was surprised to find okra and pineapples on offer.

To keep to their motto “Harrods for Everything,” you could also hire bands or musicians, plus tents or marquees for outdoor gatherings. You could rent steam, electric, or petrol launches to go down a river, or, if you set your sights further afield, there were “exploring, scientific and shooting expeditions … completely equipped and provisioned for any part of the world.”

Putting Harrods for Everything through Distributed Proofreaders was a mammoth and long-running task, which started sometime in early 2007 with me scanning the original to produce a text that other DP volunteers could work on. While the books we work on sometimes have a few pages of advertisements, this project was ALL advertisements. Pages were split into three to five parts to make proofreading and checking easier. Three rounds of proofreading started in September 2007, and the project did not finish the first formatting round (F1) until March 2010. Fortunately, those volunteers who normally do second-round formatting (F2) were spared Harrods for Everything, as it really needed one person working on it (myself) to achieve a consistent format.

As the assigned post-processor, I worked behind the scenes from 2010 to 2014 preparing the 15,000+ illustrations, but there were long gaps when other commitments prevented me from working on it. I began officially post-processing the text in 2014, but again with many gaps in working on it. It went out for smooth reading (SR) in October 2019 (a round in which DP volunteers read through the project as for pleasure in order to spot remaining errors). It was finally released to Project Gutenberg on the 1st May 2020. Sincere thanks to all who worked on it!

This post was contributed by Eric Hutton, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

Working on Grote’s History of Greece

July 1, 2020

frontisGeorge Grote: You are not buried at Westminster Abbey for nothing! This thought summarizes my admiration for George Grote and his lifelong achievement, History of Greece, in twelve volumes, now complete at last at Project Gutenberg.

This History is a perfect example of the sound scholarship coming from 19th-Century English universities. But the author was not a scholar. He was not even a university graduate. He was a banker. His parents were rich enough to have him schooled in an upper-class secondary school where he became enamored with ancient Greek and ancient Greece. But his father did not allow him to enter a university to complete his education. George was needed at the family banking business in the City of London, and a good banker he became. His love for Greece was developed as a hobby, along with his taste for languages, philosophy and politics (radical politics, not usual in a banker).

Dissatisfied with the available accounts of Greek history in English, he began in 1822 to write his own in his spare time. Twenty-four years later, he decided at last to abandon his banking activities to focus on finishing this History which had developed into twelve volumes. It was published over a ten-year period, from 1846 to 1856.

Grote’s History at Distributed Proofreaders

Five years ago, I stumbled on this magnificent work at Distributed Proofreaders (DP). It was half-abandoned. A prolific Project Manager (PM) had prepared most of the volumes of this work starting from page scans of a somewhat simplified American edition without maps and side-notes. Some volumes were already proofread, others were in progress, others were not even begun, and one volume was missing. The PM had apparently left DP, so there was no one to keep an eye on the project’s progress.

I was not then a PM myself, only a post-processor (PPer, the person who assembles and finalizes a book after it has been proofread and formatted) who was looking for something exciting to post-process. Volume 9 of Grote’s History had just been given up by another PPer because of the huge number of quotations in ancient Greek. I had studied (and forgotten) some ancient Greek at Madrid University in a prior reincarnation, and I foolishly decided to have a try at this rejected volume.

Oh, my! The English text was interesting, but the amount of Greek was indeed daunting. Not willing to give up on this task, I began to invade an alien territory full of traps. There were 11,503 footnotes in the 12 volumes, an average of 875 footnotes per volume. About 40% of these footnotes included ancient Greek – not a word or two, but full paragraphs. And some 10% of the footnotes consisted solely of ancient Greek text. How was I going to handle all this?

The Greek challenge

But fortunately at DP you are never alone: unexpected resources appear when needed. DP resident gurus in Greek philology made me aware of the Perseus Digital Library, a website where most of the ancient classical texts in Latin and Greek are found in native and translated versions. For the most part it was a matter of finding the quoted Greek text and copy-pasting it into the project. But finding the quotation was not easy: a fair number of the references were not accurate or were simply missing. It was a matter of reading lots of Greek texts to locate the quotation or, if not found, to type in the Greek quotation myself. Later, I learned to perform searches in Greek, something rather difficult to do at Perseus.

When the reference was found at Perseus, it appeared as modern scholarly conventions require for ancient Greek. But in Grote’s volumes, quoted text was rendered according to the 19th-Century orthographical style, which had to be preserved, so some retyping was always needed. For instance, to incorporate middle dots instead of semicolons (ἀνθρώπων· versus ἀνθρώπων;), breathing marks over the rhos (as in παῤῥησία), or at least to change vertical modern Greek acute accents to slanted ancient Greek ones, as DP experts recommended. For example:


Moreover, Grote had the habit of retouching the original quoted text without warning, and this retouching also had to be preserved. But typing or retyping Greek is hard: my trials with the Greek keyboard in Windows were disappointing. Fortunately, one of our experts directed me to a simple HTML page (with lots of JavaScript underneath) where it was easy to type Latin characters in order to get Greek output, and then cut-and-paste this Greek into your file.

One of my tricks when I feel insecure during post-processing is to have at hand a paper copy of the book I am working on. This is invaluable to check errors and typos or to re-scan illustrations. Through eBay, I was fortunate enough to find, at an affordable price, a complete set of the twelve volumes of Grote’s History, published in London in 1883 but printed in Leipzig, where printing houses were famous for producing classical texts devoid of typos (not so in this case, as it turned out, but still better printed than the American edition I was working on).

Every bit of Greek text was checked with this later edition, which brought a second opinion into the checking process. It was also invaluable to check some other modern language misprints. Grote was very fond of quoting in original languages, and he included Latin, French, German, Italian, and Spanish excerpts, sometimes lengthy and always in footnotes.

Finishing the full set

Well, I discovered I was able to accomplish the PP task of this first volume. After finding a kind PM for the half-baked remaining volumes, and scans for the missing one, I committed myself to finishing the other eleven volumes, which took five years.

Finding, checking, and typing all the Greek in a volume needed more than two months: it was a tiring task and had to be alternated with working on other things to be bearable. At least another month was needed to perform the rest of the PP work and then another month for smooth-reading the outcome. Smooth-reading proved to be essential (it always is!): a fair lot of mistakes which had not been detected in the DP proofreading rounds showed up now, on top of my own mistakes in handling the Greek and other languages in the text.

I was fortunate enough to have had very competent smooth-readers, not only for the Greek text (I believe that checking accurately lots of Greek text worked on by another person ought to bring you directly to heaven) but also for the English main part, finding out, for instance, that Acharnians and Phokæns are suspect words (the correct are Acharnanians and Phokæans) and other similar things of which I was not aware.

What Grote, or perhaps his publishers and printers, was somewhat lacking in was accuracy in citing authors, titles, and editions. Fortunately, in Internet times, it is possible, with some patience, to find a digital copy of almost every book cited, view its title page, and correct the names and references as originally printed.

DP’s added value

Now that all 12 volumes of Grote’s masterwork are available at Project Gutenberg, it is time to remember that a transcription like this would have been almost impossible to achieve outside of Distributed Proofreaders. A vast array of DP volunteers contributed their talents and efforts to this project. Lots of people have painstakingly checked, proofed, transliterated, formatted, and distilled their wisdom in the associated forum for each volume, with the constant help of DP administrators, project facilitators, and other DP roles.

It is wholly unfair that those tasks like post-processing that are not distributed absorb so great a part of the final credit for a DP project. The undistributed tasks are pointless without the distributed ones, which are the bulk and the force of DP contributing model. The truth is that these 12 volumes are an achievement of DP as a whole, of the DP model of distributed work, of the DP way of building and maintaining consensus among its members. I bow and take my hat off to all of them.

This post was contributed by rpajares, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


June 1, 2020


“What monstrous place is this?” said Angel.

“It hums,” said she. “Hearken!”

He listened. The wind, playing upon the edifice, produced a booming tune, like the note of some gigantic one-stringed harp. No other sound came from it, and lifting his hand and advancing a step or two, Clare felt the vertical surface of the structure. It seemed to be of solid stone, without joint or moulding. Carrying his fingers onward he found that what he had come in contact with was a colossal rectangular pillar; by stretching out his left hand he could feel a similar one adjoining. At an indefinite height overhead something made the black sky blacker, which had the semblance of a vast architrave uniting the pillars horizontally. They carefully entered beneath and between; the surfaces echoed their soft rustle; but they seemed to be still out of doors. The place was roofless… The couple advanced further into this pavilion of the night till they stood in its midst.

“It is Stonehenge!” said Clare.

– Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles

The mystical atmosphere of Stonehenge, the ancient stone circle on Salisbury Plain in England, has fascinated people for centuries. The area is believed to have been used for ritual purposes since about 8000 B.C.E. The first known monument, a chalk circle possibly ringed with standing timbers, was created around 3100 B.C.E. and was used as a burial ground. Evidence of standing stones at the site goes back to around 2600 B.C.E., and construction on the site continued periodically for another thousand years.

No one knows exactly why and how Stonehenge was built. Arthurian legends credit the wizard Merlin with magically transporting the massive stone blocks from Ireland. In fact, these bluestones, averaging 25 tons apiece, came from a site in Wales, about 150 miles (240 km) away. The stones are aligned to the sunset of the winter solstice and the sunrise of the summer solstice, suggesting that Stonehenge served some religious function – worship, healing, sacrifice, burial – perhaps all of the above. And these bluestones have long been known as “ringing rocks” – they make a mysterious clanging noise when struck – which perhaps explains the “hum” and “booming tune” that Tess and Angel Clare hear in the scene quoted above, and why the Neolithic builders went out of their way to haul the gigantic stones so far.

By the 17th Century, Stonehenge had slowly begun to go to ruin due to the depredations of nearby landowners, curiosity seekers, and treasure hunters – like the Duke of Buckingham, who dug a large hole at the site in 1620 looking for valuables. At the same time, serious archaeological studies had begun to be undertaken by men like the famed architect Inigo Jones, whose survey of Stonehenge, The Most Notable Antiquity of Great Britain, Vulgarly Called Stone-Heng, was posthumously published in 1655. Jones concluded that Stonehenge was actually a Roman temple, and his rather fanciful artist’s renderings of the site as imagined in Roman times were included in his book. But not everyone agreed with his conclusion.

Among those who held an entirely different view was the physician and antiquarian William Stukeley (1687-1765). Stukeley repeatedly visited Stonehenge beginning in the 1720s, painstakingly recording his observations. In 1740, he published Stonehenge, a Temple Restor’d to the British Druids, in which he argued that the Druids, not the Romans, had built Stonehenge.

Though his method was scientific, Stukeley’s purpose was actually religious:

My intent is (besides preserving the memory of these extraordinary monuments, so much to the honour of our country, now in great danger of ruin) to promote, as much as I am able, the knowledge and practice of ancient and true Religion; to revive in the minds of the learned the spirit of Christianity, nearly as old as the Creation, which is now languishing among us; to restore the first and great Idea of the Deity, who has carry’d on the same regular and golden chain of Religion from the beginning to this day; to warm our hearts into that true sense of Religion, which keeps the medium between ignorant superstition and learned free-thinking, between slovenly fanaticism and popish pageantry, between enthusiasm and the rational worship of God, which is no where upon earth done, in my judgment, better than in the Church of England.

Stukeley’s religious argument was based on his theory that the ancient British Druids were descended from the Phoenicians, who, he argued, had acquired their knowledge of “true” religion from the ancient Jews. He therefore posited that Stonehenge was built by these British descendants of the Phoenicians in order to worship the same “supreme Being” that the Jews, and later the Christians, worshiped.

While Stukeley was incorrect in this and other speculations, his work on Stonehenge was nonetheless of great archaeological value. He was the first to publish accurate drawings of the site, with measurements, from various vantage points. He also described and made actual-size drawings of various “Celtic ornaments” and burnt bones, human and animal, that he had found in one of the nearby barrows. He dismissed the Merlin legend and made cogent arguments refuting the Roman theory, based in part on Stonehenge’s complete lack of resemblance to any known Roman architecture. And he deplored that “great encroachments have been made upon it by the plough,” hoping that his drawings would at least preserve its memory.

Though still battered by neglect and vandalism over the next century and a half, Stonehenge was, eventually, preserved. Cecil Chubb bought it at an auction in 1915 for £6,600 and in 1918 gave it to the British government. Since then, under the aegis of English Heritage, the site has been carefully restored, excavated, and protected. It now casts its mystical spell on over a million visitors a year.

Note: Stonehenge usually attracts a huge crowd for the summer solstice. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the site is closed, but English Heritage plans to livestream the summer solstice on its Facebook page from about 8:30 p.m. BST on June 20 until about 5:30 a.m. BST on June 21.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

Fiction Writers on Fiction Writing

May 1, 2020

coverA big benefit of post-processing books for Distributed Proofreaders is discovering bewitching books that I probably won’t have seen otherwise. Such books include a biography of the writer Lafcadio Hearn, The Journal of the Debates in the Convention which Framed the Constitution, and Breaking into the Movies, a 1921 guide to breaking into silent movies.

My latest find is Fiction Writers on Fiction Writing, printed in 1923, in which the editor, Arthur Sullivant Hoffmann, asked 116 authors a set of questions about fiction writing. The authors included Sinclair Lewis and Booth Tarkington.

The book includes some very interesting answers. For instance, in answer to the question:

What is the genesis of a story with you–does it grow from an incident, a character, a trait of character, a situation, setting, a title, or what?

Samuel Hopkins Adams said:

“usually from an incident, sometimes from a single phrase which illuminates a character; never from a title.”

William Ashley Anderson said:

“No definite principle can be laid down as to the inspiration of a story. It may be based on an actual occurrence; a striking tradition; a strange custom. Or an argument may suggest a point to be proved by a story. An extraordinary character, an unusual scene, an atmosphere even (fog, storm, scorching heat). I think one of the basic principles is the desire to tell something unusual about things that are commonplace, or to tell something commonplace about things that are extraordinary.”

I will be posting questions and partial answers from the book to Twitter about once a week, with the hash #FWFW. The longer answers will be in the comments below.

This post was contributed by Ernest Schaal, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

Celebrating 39,000 Titles

April 27, 2020

This blog post – in English and German – celebrates the 39,000th title that Distributed Proofreaders has posted to Project Gutenberg: the sixth and final volume of Wilhelm Hauffs sämtliche Werke. Congratulations and thanks to all the Distributed Proofreaders volunteers who worked on it!


The German poet and novelist Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827) died just before his 25th birthday, but he left behind an amazingly rich body of work for one so young. Wilhelm Hauffs sämtliche Werke (Wilhelm Hauff’s Collected Works) fill six volumes in the 1911 edition. Distributed Proofreaders’ 39,000th title contributed to Project Gutenberg, the sixth volume, contains his Märchen – fairy tales – still beloved by German-speaking children today.

Wilhelm Hauff was born in Stuttgart. His father, a civil servant, died when Hauff was only seven years old. His mother moved the family to her father’s home, where Hauff took delight in his grandfather’s extensive and varied library. He later attended the University of Tübingen and earned a degree in theology – more to please his mother than to satisfy his own desires.

His first published work, Der Märchen-Almanach (The Fairy Tale Almanac), which can be found in volume six of the collected works, appeared in 1826. He was then working as a tutor for the children of the Württemberg minister of war, and he wrote these delightful stories especially for them.

Hauff’s highly original wit and imagination are the key to the success of these tales, which enabled him to embark upon a full-time literary career. There are, for example, exotic adventures, set in the Orient, like “Der kleine Muck” (“Little Muck”), about a boy who finds a pair of magical slippers and a magical walking stick, and “Kalif Storch” (“Caliph Stork”), about a Caliph and his Vizier who turn themselves into storks and cannot remember the magic word to turn them back into humans.

Other stories are closer to home, like “Das kalte Herz” (“The Cold Heart”, also known as “Heart of Stone”), which is set in the Black Forest. This dark tale is said to have been inspired by Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker,” from the 1824 collection Tales of a Traveller. Hauff’s story deals with a young charcoal-burner who is given three wishes by a little glass man he encounters in the forest. As in most tales of this kind, the young man chooses poorly.

Hauff’s fairy tales have been adapted for film and television many times in German-speaking countries, in Eastern Europe, and in Russia. The Internet Movie Database’s entry for Hauff lists 58 films crediting him as a writer, including the 1921 film version of “Der kleine Muck,” produced by the prominent German film company UFA. The most recent entries are two German films released in 2016, both based on “Das kalte Herz.” One was actually shot in the early 1930s but remained dormant for decades due to missing reels. The other is a modern production starring Frederick Lau. That Hauff’s fairy tales continue to inspire films today demonstrates their enduring popularity.

Hauff’s fairy tales were also well known to English-speaking children in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Distributed Proofreaders contributed The Little Glass Man and Other Stories (1894) to Project Gutenberg, as well as The Oriental Story Book (1855). And a beautifully illustrated edition from 1900 is in progress at Distributed Proofreaders.

Project Gutenberg has numerous other works by Wilhelm Hauff, in German, English, and even Esperanto, and you can download free audiobooks of Hauff’s works in German and English at Librivox. Distributed Proofreaders is proud to celebrate its 39,000th title with this special final volume of the six-volume edition of Hauff’s collected works.

This post in English was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

Wilhelm Hauffs sämtliche Werke (1911)
Volume 1 (Poems and Novellas I, with a biographical introduction by Alfred Weile) Band 1 (Gedichte und Novellen I, mit einer biographischen Einleitung von Alfred Weile)
Volume 2 (Novellas II and The Wine-Ghosts of Bremen) Band 2 (Novellen II und Phantasien im Bremer Ratskeller)
Volume 3 (Lichtenstein, a historical novel) Band 3 (Lichtenstein, ein historischer Roman)
Volume 4, (Memoiren des Satan, a satire) Band 4, (Memoiren des Satan, eine Satire)
Volume 5 (Der Mann im Mond, a parody of the works of H. Clauren; Kontrovers-Predigt über H. Clauren und den Mann im Mond, Hauff’s diatribe against Clauren; and Sketches) Band 5 (Der Mann im Mond, eine Parodie auf H. Claurens Werke; Kontrovers-Predigt über H. Clauren und den Mann im Mond, Hauffs Schmähschrift gegen Clauren; und Skizzen)
Volume 6 (Fairy Tales)
Band 6 (Märchen)

Dieser Blog-Artikel auf Englisch und Deutsch würdigt das 39.000ste Projekt, das Distributed Proofreaders bei Project Gutenberg veröffentlicht hat: den sechsten und letzten Band von Wilhelm Hauffs sämtliche Werke. Herzlichen Glückwunsch und vielen Dank an alle Freiwilligen bei Distributed Proofreaders, die an diesem Projekt gearbeitet haben!


Der deutsche Dichter und Schriftsteller Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827) starb kurz vor seinem 25. Geburtstag. Trotz seiner kurzen Schaffensperiode hinterließ er ein umfangreiches literarisches Werk. Wilhelm Hauffs sämtliche Werke füllen sechs Bände in der Ausgabe von 1911. Der sechste Band enthält seine Märchen, die auch heute noch gern gelesen werden.

Wilhelm Hauff wurde in Stuttgart geboren. Sein Vater starb, als Hauff erst sieben Jahre alt war. Seine Mutter zog mit den Kindern zu ihrem Vater nach Tübingen, wo Wilhelm Hauff eine ausgezeichnete Ausbildung genoss. Später studierte er Theologie an der Universität Tübingen, wohl eher dem Wunsch der Mutter als den eigenen Neigungen folgend.

Hauff’s erstes veröffentlichtes Buch, Der Märchen-Almanach auf das Jahr 1826 für Söhne und Töchter gebildeter Stände, ist im sechsten Band der gesammelten Werke enthalten. Es erschien 1826, als er als Hauslehrer für den württembergischen Kriegsminister angestellt war, und er schrieb die Geschichten wohl zur Unterhaltung der Kinder. Dieser Band und die beiden Folgebände für die Jahre 1827 und 1828 sind im vorliegenden sechsten Band der gesammelten Werke zusammengefasst.

Die in den drei Bänden enthaltenen Märchen sind jeweils durch eine Rahmenerzählung zusammengefasst. Der erste Band spielt im Orient und enthält bekannte Märchen wie “Die Geschichte von dem kleinen Muck” und “Kalif Storch”. Das bekannteste Märchen des zweiten Bandes ist wohl “Zwerg Nase”, außerdem enthält dieser Band eine Nacherzählung des Grimm’schen Märchens “Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot”.

Die Rahmenerzählung des dritten Bandes, “Das Wirtshaus im Spessart”, ist insbesondere durch die Verfilmung von 1958 mit Lieselotte Pulver bekannt. Auch das darin eingebettete Märchen “Das kalte Herz” wurde oft verfilmt, das erste Mal bereits 1924 und das vorerst letzte Mal 2016.

Die Märchen sind der Teil von Wilhelm Hauff’s Werk, der bis heute immer wieder Neuausgaben in Buchform erhält und auch verfilmt wird.

Hauff’s Märchen waren auch englisch sprechenden Kindern im Zeitalter Victorias und Edward des VII. bekannt. Distributed Proofreaders hat The Little Glass Man and Other Stories (1894) und The Oriental Story Book (1855) für Project Gutenberg produziert. Außerdem ist eine wunderschöne illustrierte Edition von 1900 derzeit in Arbeit.

Bei Project Gutenberg sind zahlreiche andere Werke von Wilhelm Hauff zu finden, auf Deutch, Englisch und sogar Esperanto. Auf Librivox sind unter anderem alle drei Bände des Märchen-Almanachs als Hörbücher verfügbar. Distributed Proofreaders ist stolz darauf, seinen 39.000sten Titel mit dem letzten Band der sechsbändigen Ausgabe von Hauff’s gesammelten Werken zu feiern.

Dieser Blog-Beitrag auf Deutsch wurde von Constanze Hofmann, einer Freiwilligen für Distributed Proofreaders, verfasst.

Stories for a Pandemic

April 1, 2020

What do you do when a deadly disease is raging all around you? Pandemics aren’t new to mankind, one earth-shaking example being the Black Death that decimated medieval Europe, Asia, and the Middle East in the mid-14th Century. Now known as bubonic, septicemic, or pneumonic plague, depending on where it lands in the body, this nasty illness is believed to have killed off up to 200 million people in just a few years. (By contrast, the influenza pandemic of 1918 killed perhaps half that number.)

Accurate medical knowledge at the time was spectacularly lacking. Not only was there no understanding of what the plague was (a bacterial infection) or how it spread (fleas carried by rodents), there was no effective treatment for it (antibiotics). People randomly survived or died according to what they believed was God’s will. But one thing they did dimly understand was that being near people who had the plague made you more likely to get it.


Boccaccio and other Florentines fleeing the plague, from a 1485 French edition of The Decameron

So, if you lived in a city like Florence, and you had the means, what you did was flee to the countryside to escape the city’s “bad air.” And that was what gave the Florentine author and humanist Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) the framing device for his masterwork, The Decameron.

Written in the immediate aftermath of the plague that reduced Florence’s population by more than half in just two years, The Decameron is a collection of 100 stories, told by a group of young Florentines, three men and seven women, who have taken shelter in an empty villa in nearby Fiesole. Each is appointed to tell one story a night for 10 nights.

The stories range from the bawdy to the holy, the sweet to the horrific. The astonishing thing about them is that they are so modern and so universal. Boccaccio explored, with wit and wisdom, every aspect of humanity – vices, virtues, strengths, weaknesses – and he pulled no punches.

One of the most famous tragic stories concerns a young woman, Lisabetta, whose brothers have murdered her lover (Day 4, Tale 5). She finds his body and buries his head in a pot of basil, which she tends lovingly, watering it with her tears. The story inspired John Keats’s poem, “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil” (which can be found in Keats: Poems Published in 1820). That, in turn, inspired paintings by William Holman Hunt, John William Waterhouse, and Joseph Severn, among others, as well as a symphonic tone poem by Frank Bridge.

On the bright (and very naughty) side are tales like that of Caterina (Day 5, Tale 4), who dupes her parents into letting her sleep out on the terrace so she can hear the nightingale sing – a euphemism for something quite different involving her secret lover. Or the comic tale of the hapless Andreuccio (Day 2, Tale 5), whose slapstick accidents start in a latrine and go downhill from there.

Distributed Proofreaders volunteers worked on the e-text of John Payne’s 1886 English translation, which was originally published privately. It has the virtue of copious explanatory footnotes. It’s also considered to be the first complete English translation – but it’s not truly complete. Payne just couldn’t bring himself to translate part of the X-rated story of Rustico, a monk who teaches a heathen girl how the Devil is put into Hell (Day 3, Tale 10). Payne adds a footnote with the excuse that “The translators regret that the disuse into which magic has fallen, makes it impossible to render the technicalities of that mysterious art into tolerable English; they have therefore found it necessary to insert several passages in the original Italian.” But the Project Gutenberg e-book has a helpful transcriber’s note giving the passage in English from the 1903 translation by J.M. Rigg, who was apparently undaunted by that disused “magic.”

Project Gutenberg also has the very first English translation, by John Florio, published in 1620. It’s not complete; among other things, it replaces the Rustico tale with a rather cleaner story not written by Boccaccio. And Project Gutenberg has a Dutch version, De Decamerone, contributed by Distributed Proofreaders, as well as one in Finnish, Novelleja Decameronesta, but no Italian version. However, you can find free e-book and audiobook versions of the definitive Italian edition at Liber Liber – Progetto Manuzio, an endeavor with which Team Italia at Distributed Proofreaders has long collaborated.

During this time of modern pestilence, Boccaccio’s wonderful tales may be just the antidote to cabin fever that you’re looking for.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

Transcribing Wagner’s Music

March 1, 2020


Richard and Cosima Wagner

I volunteer on the Distributed Proofreaders Music Team, which helps transcribe music in the books we work on for Project Gutenberg into audio for readers to listen to and enjoy. All kinds of books — not just books about music — can contain music: hymnbooks, children’s books, history books, biography books. All kinds of books contain music! These days, we are able to add sound files to what was once only a visual experience. What a wonderful technological advance!

The books we prepare for Project Gutenberg are in the public domain. Public domain means the music is old by today’s standards, and sometimes ancient by anyone’s standards. The internet in general, and YouTube specifically, offers an awesome amount of audio listening, even for musical relics! I’m always amazed when I go hunting for a specific tune and find it already online, sometimes in several versions. What a wonderful achievement! I no longer have just black noteheads on stave lines. Someone else has already thought this through and provided indications for tempo, dynamics, articulation, and instruments, things not always specified in the original score. Marvelous!

On the other hand, there are pieces that simply don’t have any guidance other than what’s provided in the book itself. Sometimes I just have to listen to lots of medieval music, or lots of African chants, or lots of Chinese opera to get a sense of the general direction, and then make my best guess.

Happily, Richard Wagner falls into the first category. Lots and lots of Wagner to listen to! Yet, when a book contains just snippets of his music, I have to find a handful of bars in any one of Wagner’s musical tomes to figure out how they should sound. His compositions not only go on for hours — sometimes they go on for days! Der Ring des Nibelungen comes to mind — four German-language epic music dramas spread over four consecutive evenings. The only solution for transcribing Wagner’s music is to take whatever hints I can find in the text, then start listening and researching full scores for all the information needed to recreate his glorious sounds. Armed with this knowledge, I then use music notation software and other tools to create the audio files.

I won’t bore you with all the details of getting from here to there. I will only say it was a committed effort of many, many hours over many weeks to pull this together. We’re volunteers, and as much as we love what we do, Real Life also has its demands.

Following are five excerpts from Wagner as Man and Artist by the eminent English musicologist Ernest Newman. Each excerpt contains Newman’s description of the music, an image of the music snippet, and an audio file (MP3) so you can hear it. To see and hear more, go to the HTML version of the e-book at Project Gutenberg, where you can also download PDF images of the music notation and MusicXML files that can be opened in just about any music notation program, as well as MP3 files. Enjoy!

From Die Walküre

Shakespeare’s magic is in the phrasing,—not, be it remembered, a merely extraneous, artificial grace added to the idea, a mere clothing that can be put on or off it at will, but a subtle interaction and mutual enkindlement of idea and expression. For the musician that enkindlement comes from the adding of music to the words: the music does for the idea what the style does for it in the case of the poet,—raises it to a higher emotional power, gives it colour, odour, incandescence, wings. Brynhilde comes to tell Siegfried that he must die. The mere announcement of the fact is next to nothing; the infinities and the solemn silences only gather about it when the orchestra gives out the wonderful theme.



From Das Liebesverbot

Nor in any other work but this would Wagner have accompanied with so irresponsible a theme the appeal of Claudio (sentenced to death) to his friend Luzio to seek the aid of Isabella—



In the third scene appears a theme that was afterwards expanded and put to splendid use in Tannhäuser. Here the nuns sing it behind the scenes to the words “Salve regina cœli.”



In the opening scene of the second Act,—the garden of the prison in which Claudio is awaiting death—we have another employment of the leit-motive, the oboe giving out softly the theme to which Claudio had previously urged Luzio to implore the help of Isabella, but now with appropriately altered harmonies—



The later Wagnerian method of accumulating excitement, which we have seen anticipated in Die Feen, is employed also in Das Liebesverbot, as in the following passage, which, like the one previously quoted, gives us a decided foretaste of the meeting of Tristan and Isolde—



This post was contributed by Jude Eylander, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

The Golden Bough

December 1, 2019
Turner Golden Bough

The Golden Bough, by J.M.W. Turner

Distributed Proofreaders recently completed posting to Project Gutenberg all twelve volumes of Sir James George Frazer’s masterwork, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (3rd edition, 1915). This monumental study of comparative mythology and religion, first published in two volumes in 1890, had a huge influence not only on the newly developing fields of social anthropology and psychology, but also on modern literature.

Frazer’s studies in classics at Cambridge sparked a deep interest in myths and religious rites. The Golden Bough was inspired by an ancient Roman myth depicted in J.M.W. Turner’s painting of the same name. As Frazer explains in Volume I:

Who does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough? The scene, suffused with the golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape, is a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of Nemi—”Diana’s Mirror,” as it was called by the ancients….

Within the sanctuary at Nemi grew a certain tree of which no branch might be broken. Only a runaway slave was allowed to break off, if he could, one of its boughs. Success in the attempt entitled him to fight the priest in single combat, and if he slew him he reigned in his stead with the title of King of the Wood (Rex Nemorensis). According to the public opinion of the ancients the fateful branch was that Golden Bough which, at the Sibyl’s bidding, Aeneas plucked before he essayed the perilous journey to the world of the dead.

Although he read extensively in ancient texts, Frazer’s research was not confined to Greek and Roman myths. He also sent detailed questionnaires to missionaries and British colonial officials all over the world, including Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific, seeking their observations of the natives’ customs and rituals. Today this method would cause a field anthropologist to raise an eyebrow, but it was a start. Until then, no one had attempted so vast a comparison of human beliefs.

Frazer’s global study of myths and rituals formed the basis for his theory that human civilization evolved from belief in magic, to faith in religion, to reliance on science. Of course, the implication that science is on an evolutionary plane higher than religion did not endear Frazer to Christian church authorities. And Frazer’s inclusion of events sacred to Christianity in his comparative studies, such as Christ’s resurrection, outraged some contemporary critics, because it implied that these events were the equivalent of pagan myths.

But to others, Frazer’s work was revolutionary and inspiring. Particularly fascinating was the realization that the essential archetypes of ancient myths are universal across all human cultures, “civilized” or not. This concept had a profound impact on modern literature, influencing artists as diverse as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, H.P. Lovecraft, Jim Morrison, and even George Lucas (through the later work of Joseph Campbell). And the newborn science of psychology benefited as well, influencing Sigmund Freud’s theories in Totem and Taboo and, indirectly, Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious.

Some modern critics have faulted Frazer for what they perceive as his unscientific methods and Victorian biases. But others continue to appreciate the multicultural scope of Frazer’s work. The Golden Bough‘s vivid synthesis of worldwide myths about life and death, gods and monsters, heroes and kings — stories common to all human cultures — shaped modern thought in ways that cannot be underestimated.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.



Celebrating 38,000 Titles

November 8, 2019


Distributed Proofreaders celebrates the 38,000th title it has posted to Project Gutenberg, The Birds of Australia, Volume III, by John Gould. Congratulations and thanks to all the Distributed Proofreaders volunteers who worked on it.

John Gould (1804-1881) began work as a gardener under his father. He later set himself up as a taxidermist and eventually became the first Curator and Preserver at the museum of the Zoological Society of London. This provided the opportunity for him to be the first to view new specimens donated to the Society. 


Gould began to publish books on birds illustrated by his wife Elizabeth and other artists. After a string of successful works, John and Elizabeth moved to Australia to work on The Birds of Australia, published between 1840 and 1848. Elizabeth died in childbirth in 1841, soon after returning to England, and other artists completed the illustrations.

The bird specimens collected by Charles Darwin in his second voyage on the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836 were presented to the Zoological Society. Gould began identifying them and noticed that birds that were identified by Darwin as blackbirds, gross-bills, and finches were “a series of ground Finches which are so peculiar” as to form “an entirely new group, containing 12 species.” Gould met with Darwin and informed him that several of the birds Darwin had identified but supposed to be just varieties of the same species were actually distinct species on different islands. Darwin was then able to establish that the species were unique to the islands, leading to the inception of his theory of evolution. Gould’s research, with his wife’s illustrations, was published in 1838-1841 as Part 3 of The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, edited by Darwin.

The Birds of Australia was the first comprehensive survey of the birds of Australia. It is a seven-volume set that includes descriptions of 681 species, of which 328 were first described by Gould. Elizabeth Gould made hundreds of drawings and 84 color plates before her death. H.C. Richter produced 595 plates from her drawings. As Gould noted in the introduction to Volume I, there was no doubt a great deal more work to be done in the Australian wilderness:

If we compare the ornithology of Australia with that of any other country in similar latitudes and of the same extent, we shall find that it fully equals, if it does not exceed them all, in the number of species it comprises; and those parts of the country that are still unexplored doubtless contain many yet to be added to the list of its Fauna.

The Birds of Australia, Volume II, was previously posted to Project Gutenberg. Volumes I and IV through VII are in progress at Distributed Proofreaders.

This post was contributed by Richard Tonsing, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


America’s First Banned Book

November 1, 2019

title pageLast week, Christie’s, the famed auction house, auctioned off a copy of what they described as America’s first banned book — a 1637 first edition of The New English Canaan. The book, a diatribe against the Puritans of New England, sold for US$60,000. But, thanks to the volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders, you can read it for free at Project Gutenberg.

When the Puritans fled England in the early 17th Century to seek religious freedom in the wilderness of America, they had no intention of extending that freedom to anyone else. Their settlements were under tight theocratic control. But they were not the only Englishmen interested in settling in America. Others with less spiritual motives had also come across the Atlantic — to seek their fortunes.

The two groups were bound to clash. Among the entrepreneurs who earned the Puritans’ ire was Thomas Morton (1579–1647). He first came to America for a few months in 1622 as the agent for a British businessman. There he found “two sortes of people, the one Christians, the other Infidels; these I found most full of humanity, and more friendly then the other.” Having no use for the Puritans, Morton took the trouble to acquaint himself with the native Americans and their language and customs.

In 1624, he returned to engage in fur trading with the Algonquian natives in the Puritans’ Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. The Puritans objected to Morton and his associates selling guns and liquor to the natives, so in 1625 Morton moved on to found his own settlement, Merrymount, in present-day Quincy, Massachusetts. In 1627, he and his fun-loving compatriots irritated the Puritans by holding a May Day revel with the natives. Plymouth governor William Bradford, in his History of Plimoth Plantation, referred to Morton as a “lord of misrule” and railed against the Merrymount colonists and native women “dancing and frisking togither, (like so many fairies, or furies rather,) and worse practises.” (This bacchanal inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s story, “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” in Twice-Told Tales.) The growing prosperity of the Merrymount colony — which threatened the Puritans’ trade monopoly — and an even wilder May Day celebration the following year, only added insult to injury.

So Plymouth struck back, with a military offensive against Merrymount led by Myles Standish. Morton was arrested and banished to a deserted island off the coast of New Hampshire, and his 80-foot maypole was chopped down. After various unpleasant vicissitudes, including nearly starving to death, Morton made his way back to England. There, he successfully sued the Puritans’ financial machine, the Massachusetts Bay Company, and got its charter revoked in 1635.

With the help of London literary friends like Ben Jonson, Morton turned the notes he had made for his lawsuit into an explosive three-volume book, The New English Canaan, published in Amsterdam in 1637.  It contains a pointed and entertaining screed against the Puritans’ theocratic rule in Massachusetts, their intolerance for dissent, and their efforts to wipe out the native population.

The first two books of The New English Canaan are mostly non-controversial, containing Morton’s observations on the native Americans, whom he respected greatly, and on the rich natural resources in New England. It was in the third book that Morton rolled up his sleeves and got down to his real purpose of skewering the New England Puritans, who, he said, “make a great shewe of Religion, but no humanity.”

Morton was particularly appalled at the Puritans’ mistreatment of the native Americans. He recounted various instances in which the Puritans cheated the natives, stole their land, and massacred them. He also criticized the Puritans for wanting to keep New England’s resources a secret from the public so as to have them all to themselves.

The third book also gives Morton’s side of the May Day story and its aftermath, interspersed with poems and songs. One song, which had been tacked up on the giant maypole, was bound to gall the Puritans, combining as it did intemperance with lasciviousness:

Drinke and be merry, merry, merry boyes;
Let all your delight be in the Hymens ioyes;
Jô to Hymen, now the day is come,
About the merry Maypole take Roome.

Morton also thinly disguised many of the Puritan figures in his book with humorously insulting names, such as “Captaine Shrimpe” for Myles Standish.

The Puritans were not amused. Governor Bradford referred to The New English Canaan as “an infamouse & scurillous booke against many godly & cheefe men of ye cuntrie; full of lyes & slanders, and fraight with profane callumnies against their names and persons, and ye ways of God.” When Morton returned to America, the Puritans arrested him on various charges, including having “set forth a book against us.” He died an exile in Maine in 1647.

The edition of The New English Canaan at Project Gutenberg is an 1883 reprint of the first edition, with an illuminating introduction that lays out a detailed history of America’s first banned book.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

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