A Little Adrift

A Little Guide… Free Resources to Learn and Read Nearly Anything

I believe in the open source movement—in giving the gift of learning and knowledge freely and openly to anyone with an internet connection. And the internet alone is a huge barrier for many, but once you have the internet and a computer, I believe we all should easily have ways to learn. This type of knowledge infrastructure was unfathomable even a few decades ago, but now that we have it, I believe this access is a right, not a privilege. And though I believe in the right for authors, teachers, and creators to make a living from their works (books, online courses, and the like), I don’t see these two ideas as mutually exclusive, and I love that our world is moving closer toward a free exchange of ideas and knowledge. My first access to this idea of open knowledge sharing was through the website Open Culture, which strives to do exactly that—collect all the free and open resources. From there, I found a movement of like-minded people learning for only the sake of learning, and sharing similarly—so all people can learn if they so choose.

My friend Laura bought a guitar in Thailand and other travelers and locals taught her how to play on the road.

Raising access to quality information will define our generation if we let it, and it will shape the next one. A core principle I wanted my niece Ana to understand while we homeschooled last year, is that beyond the memorization and formalized knowledge the school system pushes, life-long, self-motivated learning is the biggest gift she can give herself. We are in a rare time in history, where the barrier of entry to learning is lower than it has ever been—perfectly timed to match some major failures in our public school systems. But never before have knowledge and learning been so accessible.

And so, over the months Ana traveled with me, as much as anything else, I nurtured in her self-motivation and I taught her how to access this dense information we have; I wanted her to learn how to find the quality corners of the internet where she can pursue a dream and fulfill it. I also taught her formal “educational” information (and I plan to share the homeschooling system and tools we used next month), but forced schooling only lasts until you’re 18, and then it’s purely yourself that continues the process, and only for your personal joy of growing and learning.

In the spirit of life-long learning, I am sharing the resources I have collected over the past several years, particularly as I homeschooled Ana last year and found a lot of ways to act—for free—on a desire to learn nearly anything. Children model the adults around them, and with Ana in tow I realized I wasn’t always doing a good job embodying the learning I wanted her to possess. Below, broken down by courses, books, podcasts, and databases, are the major resources where you can: download free, legal books for your e-readers or computers; take a Ivy-league course merely for the sake of learning, watch video tutorials, listen to interesting lessons in history, and more. I share these so we can take control of our goals and pursue learning merely because we want it for ourselves and our next generation.

Free (and Legal) Places to Download Books

Purchasing a Kindle changed my life for the better. I love this device. I am an avid reader and my extensive collection of paperback books is one of the handful of things I never sold in my de-cluttering before my travels (it lives at my dad’s house). But the Kindle brought a convenience to reading that has allowed me to fill the device with books for every mood and I find this fact alone (and it’s portability) means I always feel like reading something. And so, I read a lot more.

A beer and a book when I traveled solo through Bali.

Many of the sites on this list offer free e-versions of books in the public domain, and they are easiest to read on an e-reader like Kindles and Nooks. But, of note is that you can read any of these on your computer too if the book is offered as a PDF, or through Calibre software (available for PCs and Macs); Calibre renders any major e-book formats and allows you to read directly from your computer.

Free Online Courses and Knowledge Databases (on a Huge Range of Subjects)

I sometimes lament the fact that my years of leisurely studying anything that strikes my fancy are long over now that I am nearly seven years out of University. I loved that the ability to take the most random of classes built was into the US university system, all in the guise of “figuring out what you wanted to do with your life.” Now that I supposedly know what I’m doing, the keen desire to learn the random hasn’t passed. In fact, the longer I travel the more I wish I could learn. In that spirit, these resources offer classes—some coursework actually from major, accredited Ivy-league US and international universities!

Online Courses (Some with Certificate)

Some of these classes have specific start days and structured lessons, others provide the syllabus and materials and allow you to self-pace through the course-work.

Learn a Foreign Language
Since this is a very common life-long goal, I’ve separated out the language-learning courses/podcasts from other more traditional courses. We all say we want to, but acting on that is the next step.

Free Databases of Knowledge

Small pieces of pottery at the museum in the Amman Citadel complex, Jordan.


The Most Interesting and Educational Podcasts I’ve Found

For the auditory learners, there are a handful of audio-book downloads I listed in the books section, but otherwise I find that podcasts are my go-to for filling in gaps like driving, or particularly windy bus rides (when reading a book is guaranteed to make me ill). In fact, in the past week I can think of at least five incidences when I told someone “Oh, speaking of that, I listened to this fascinating podcast about [insert random fact here.]”  So, I polled some friends, and pulled through my own iTunes list of podcasts, and here are my favorite interesting, thinky podcasts (linked to iTunes, but a quick Google search will also often yield mp3 downloads too).

And to End, Websites That Will Make you Big in the Brain

To steal a phrase from my good friend Jodi—who has a huge thirst for knowledge—these sites below will make you “Big in the Brain” if you read them regularly. The sites above are portals of amazing information, and in many cases they share courses or books, but if you’re instead looking for information in a blog or article format, these are some of the neater sites out there; leave your favorites and I’ll add to this list. In short, these are the sites I find myself coming back to week after week!

  1. Brain Pickings: Maria Popova hand-curates the information on this site and posts fascinating book reviews and often esoteric or obscure information. She calls the site “a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness” —and it’s true, you’ll find heaps of interesting books to add to your e-reader if you subscribe to her site.
  2. National Geographic: You don’t have to subscribe to their magazine (though really, why wouldn’t you) to access tons of interesting articles each day on archaeology, travel, animals, and more. I “like” their Facebook page so that the most interesting of their posts show up in my newsfeed.
  3. Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD): Every time my dad fixes my computer, he sets the homepage to this site. And it’s pretty cool, each day a gorgeous high-resolution photo and explanation are featured on this NASA run site. Do this too and trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
  4. Longreads: Curates the best long-form writing on the internet.
  5. In Focus Photoessay: From The Atlantic, this regular feature offers up gorgeous photoessays on a range of topics, places, and people.
  6. Letters of Note: An odd concept, but the site works really well, they post fascinating correspondence (letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos) from famous people in history, or about historical moments.
  7. Arts & Letters Daily: This site acts as a master curation tool for the internet—with links to fascinating articles within philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticisms, culture, and more.
  8. Ways to Fight Boredom: My good friend Mike came up with a long list of very, very awesome sites that you can go-to for fun, interesting, and downright amusement.
  9. Less Wrong: A community blog devoted to defining the art of human rationality.
  10. 3 Quarks Daily:  The site professes it is a one-stop intellectual surfing experience by culling good stuff from all over and putting it in one place, specifically within the fields of: science, design, literature, current affairs, and art.

This post has now become mammoth … and I kinda love that because I truly hope it helps you find something interesting to learn or do or read. I know my own goals every year include reading  more books, or finally learning to play the fiddle, or taking a photography course. And as I preached my ideas with Ana during our time in Southeast Asia, I realized I had the ability to do all of these through the internet (maybe not the fiddle though), and it was time to act on them.

And so, I am now freshening up my Sign Language, I joined a travel book club on Goodreads (friend me on there if you’re keen!), and I am trying to embrace the freedom and knowledge the internet has given our generations, and I hope you do too.

If I’ve overlooked a great resource, please share in the comments. What learning/reading goal do you hope to fulfill this year?