RIP Michael S. Hart

Remembering the founder of Project Gutenberg.

Michael Hart is dead. He was the founder of Project Gutenberg, and an incredible visionary for online books, and someone who touched my life. I was in email contact with him from 1990, when I got my first access to the Internet and found Project Gutenberg. I ran New Zealand mirror archives of Project Gutenberg texts, scanned and proofread books, and fell in with the write crowd, so to speak.

I made a trip to the US around 1993 or 94. It was a family trip to a bluegrass festival in Kentucky, but I asked Dad if we could tack on a few extra bits as we’d be “close by”. Those bits: a trip to Champagne-Illinois to meet Michael, and a trip to Rhode Island to meet a girl. “Close by” if you’re in NZ and looking at a map of the US and don’t pay much attention to scale. Dad drove us to Rhode Island and I got to meet the girl, but he said I’d have to do my geek stuff by myself.

So I flew into there somehow, and Michael picked me up and drove me around town. In Wellington, where I got my degree, the university sits on a hill above the town. In UIUC the town was built around the university! He showed me the divide between arts and science, made literal and laughable by the road that actually did divide the arts faculties on the left from science faculties on the right. We crossed the tracks, the actual tracks, to the bad side of town. He fed me American Pizza, and my clearest memory of the whole trip is watching him empty packets of sugar onto the top of his pizza. Something like that really sticks in one’s mind ….

Then we went back to his house, which I believe he had inherited from his academic family. In my memory it is huge, but I think that’s principally because it was full of books. I remember him as loving physical books as much as he loved digital books, but most of all I remember him as generous with his time. He took a lot of time out of his busy days to show this goober of a boy, 21 years old if that, around town. He can’t have got much back in conversational joy, as I wasn’t a particularly worldly chap, and I didn’t realize then what a lot of time I’d asked for and he’d given. He put me up in his house, I made my way back to the family the next day, and when I eventually built a life for myself in America (not with the lass from Rhode Island, however) I often thought of Michael but never made the time to follow up. I regret it now.

I learned a lot from Michael, though I don’t think he realized it at the time. I learned how hard it is to be a pioneer: doing work that others don’t value is thankless and marginalizing. I learned how hard it is when others eventually follow you: they don’t value what you’ve done nearly as much as they should, and they have lots of different ideas about the future than you do. I learned to be generous with my time. I learned that sugar on pizza is a taste it takes longer than one day to acquire. And, most importantly, I learned that people can and do make a life for themselves doing what they love.

RIP Michael.

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