"With mammals, the male appears to win the female much more through the law of battle than through the display of his charms."
-Charles Darwin, 1871
Classic texts such as Darwin's Descent of Man and modern works including Bruce Eckel's Thinking in C++ are available in a variety of online libraries for free. Thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet, millions of scholars worldwide can have instant simultaneous access to thousands of books without the dead-tree factor. You can easily and quickly search the contents of electronic works using any Web browser or text processor, which is usually preferable to thumbing through 300 pages of Hamlet at 3 a.m. to find that last quote about insanity.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and over 3,100 other titles are available on Project Gutenberg, the oldest and largest collection of electronic texts. Project Gutenberg, which is searchable by subject, title and author, focuses primarily on literature and scientific texts published before the 20th century.
For more recent works, ibiblio offers links to journals, modern reference texts, religious literature, newspaper archives and a variety of other electronic texts. ibiblio also catalogues a variety of politically and socially sensitive texts. Since ibiblio only hosts a limited number of texts itself and relies on other sites such as PG for many titles, searching ibiblio is a more involved process.
The On-Line Books Page features an extensive archive of serials in its collection of 13,000 items and links to various English and foreign-language texts. This site, along with PG and ibiblio, allows user submissions and requests.
While the free sharing of texts on the Internet is consistent with its original purpose of free information exchange, electronic texts are also available on a commercial basis from a few Internet retailers, including Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.
Although many of the pay-per-view titles are also available for free, electronic texts for which a nominal fee is charged can offer a more enjoyable reading experience. Professionally formatted text and images which are often unavailable with free texts are usually included. Specialized electronic text-rendering software, such as Microsoft's E-book Reader and Adobe's Acrobat eBook reader, ensure that text is displayed consistently on any platform, including handhelds and desktop computers. The same software, however, often limits how text can be manipulated and used. There is a third class of electronic literature obtainable without cost from the Internet. These often recent, publication-quality texts cover many scientific and literary subjects and come in ready-to-print formats such as Adobe PDF and can include new books which have not yet been published in print.
Before you swear off the book/store, be warned that most of these pirated electronic texts are either abridged CD-ROM versions of texts or websites which accompany the hardcopy text or are pre-release drafts which require editing. In most cases, such electronic texts are illegally distributed without the publishers' permission and would cost more to print privately than they cost off the shelf.
You can also access electronic texts from the Library which has access to hundreds of on-line periodicals including Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies and government publications such as those from Statistics Canada.