By Rob James

It’s becoming increasingly straightforward for English Literature students to read and make notes on their set texts through eBooks and devices. Books can be downloaded and read on tablets, or even on smartphones, while PDFs and computer readers mean that students can make notes and highlight particular passages when revising.

One of the main benefits of using eBooks, with many now free to download, is that you can have a spare copy of a class text (one that’s not covered in pencil and pen scrawlings). As the majority of classic books set for English Lit courses can now be found in a basic version online, downloading them means that you can vary your revision and note taking. Moreover, it’s possible to find free online study books and eBooks that can be downloaded to enhance revision and build up referencing options for essays.

More generally, eBooks provide a way to multiply the reading options for students trying to find copies of texts, and also create the potential for teachers to experiment with longer additional reading lists and contextual materials without having to spend a lot of money. The ease by which eBooks can be downloaded also speaks to the need for schools to encourage students to make use of cutting-edge resources, whereby they can build reading into their daily smartphone and laptop usage.

Discussing the appeal of eBooks in the classroom, Carol Horner has argued that eBooks provide a ‘dynamic, interactive learning experience’; students can access texts, but can also use them as a springboard to other free and paid educational resources and apps, from discussion forums to blogs, video content, and apps.

Getting students familiar with eBooks as just one part of a wider range of digital learning resources is consequently crucial to the future of integrating traditional and contemporary teaching methods. In this context, Steven Schwartz suggests that ‘users can also personalize their learning experience,’ from changing font size, to choosing how they make notes and copy extracts from eBooks to be used for classwork.

When looking for eBooks and other study resources, it’s worth starting with the large number of sites like Project Gutenberg, and resources like Amazon, that offer free downloads and open access versions of books. Some good books and study guides to look out for online include:

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels 

Used in various English Literature courses, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is typically recommended for its influence on travel books and the English novel, and is often read alongside 18th century texts like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Free versions of Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, and study guides on these texts can be found online.

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo & Juliet, Othello, et al

One of the main advantages of using free eBooks for your Eng Lit course is that there are usually complete collections of Shakespeare available at the click of a button. This can be an excellent bonus if you’re using a single book in classes, and want to scan through other texts, or find extra references for your essays. Many of the Shakespeare eBooks online are also now being optimized for reading on Kindles, iPads, and other tablets – compared to previous textbooks and older, more basic eBooks on text-only sites like Project Gutenberg, this optimization allows for interactive notes, better images, and easier navigation. Innovations in eBook technology and usability consequently make them more accessible for long term use and reading on portable devices.

Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol; Great Expectations, et al

As with Shakespeare, Charles Dickens’ complete works can be downloaded for free, and represent an excellent way of saving money if you’ve lost a copy. While teachers typically recommend a set edition for page numbers and references for essays and exams, having another copy of a long novel is useful if you want to take a break from the book version.

Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice

Another book that is routinely used in courses, Pride and Prejudice is worth downloading as an eBook to have another option for reading the text alongside other adaptations used in classes, from films to television adaptations.

Poetry

Another advantage of eBook libraries is that you can quickly find the complete works of classic poets like Byron, Keats, and Wilde, and can use them to search through and annotate individual poems, or to get a wider sense of their work. Some particularly distinctive free poetry eBooks include:

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

This 14th century epic poem works well in an eBook format, as you can break down sections and reduce the challenge of the more advanced text – a good complement to reading sections in class.

James Baldwin, Six Centuries of English Poetry: Tennyson to Chaucer

Downloading large collections of different poetry is recommended if you want to fill in some gaps in your knowledge, but don’t fancy the idea of carting around a large edition from the library.  A collection like Baldwin’s Six Centuries is particularly useful, in this respect.

Study Guides

There are also many study guides that are available as eBooks online from sites like   novelguide.com, bilbiomania.com, and freebooknotes.com. While the quality may vary, and most don’t quite compare to comprehensive paid study guides, you can usually find good summaries of chapters, as well as brief commentary sections and extended essays. Using these guides can be a good idea if you’re finding it hard to get into a long novel. While study guides shouldn’t be used instead of reading through a text, they can be a good complement if you want to get an overview of key themes and plot points.


Rob James, a secondary school teacher in the UK, who’s currently planning spring revision courses for his GCSEs students. Rob likes to blog about the different aspects of inspiring young minds, particularly through use of new media technologies. 

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