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VitalSource Bookshelf offers 10 free classic titles


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Dec. 8--Penny-pinching, hard-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge is available in a free download offer that would cause the wretched old miser to sniff: "Bah! Humbug!"

VitalSource Bookshelf, a Raleigh digital-book vendor, is offering 10 free classic titles, including Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

"This is our first book offered to the outside world," said VitalSource chief executive Frank Daniels III. "It's just an interesting little opportunity."

The Christmas tales and other titles are available at www.vitalsource.com/betterbooks. The offer ends Jan. 6. The freebie is out of character for VitalSource, a scholarly tool that specializes in selling classic literature and textbooks to students. The company's online catalog includes 1,000 digital books that sell for 99 cents to $150, Daniels said.

The company is adapting the iTunes model to deliver belles lettres to the masses. Footnote for students of the Victorian novel: iTunes is a post-modernist cultural reference to Apple's iPod device, which stores digital music.

VitalSource is hardly the only site that offers free classics online, but its downloads are searchable and interactive, letting students insert electronic highlights, marginal notes and bibliographic sources. Reading a book requires downloading a program that lets students store books on a hard drive and deconstruct the text on the screen.

"The power of the application is that it enables you to make a book your own," Daniels said.

VitalSource says the research tool has wassailing potential. "When readers want that specific quote from "A Christmas Carol." to complete the annual holiday toast, the line they need is only a click away," the company's press release says.

For Christmas wishes, few can cheer the spirit as did old Scrooge.

"If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart," Scrooge said.

As CEO of VitalSource, Daniels caters to an audience of bibliophiles and scholars. In his previous publishing job, Daniels was executive editor of The News & Observer, a post he held until 1995. He plans to expand VitalSource offerings to such topics as religion, hobbies and cooking.

"I don't expect people to read summer fiction on their computer," he said.

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