Project Project Gutenberg is not my first ambitious and silly reading project.
Some time in the late 1980's I was visiting my older sister in Ithaca, New York, and took a chance to browse used bookstores. I wound up making a purchase that was much more extensive than I expected: around $400 for a complete set of Richard Francis Burton's famous translation, The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, subtitled Alf Laylah Wa Laylah. This translation was reprinted several times, mostly in private subscription runs (because Burton refused to expurgate sexual and scatalogical content), and the publication info is not well-marked, but I think I have the 1900-1901 American edition. In the summer of 2001 I decided that if I owned them I might as well read them, and found, from the fact that I had to slit lots of uncut pages, that I was this copy's first reader. Getting through all sixteen volumes took about eleven months.
Burton was a quirky guy, and his translation was intended to give the English-speakers a real feel for Arabic storytelling prose. His own English is fairly elaborate, and when trying to convey the flowery narrative style of the original Nights, he really went overboard, ransacking archaic vocabulary so that he could provide alliterative phrases wherever there was alliteration in the Arabic. (One I remember is "cark and care" to express extreme anxiety.) Some of it was tedious but overall I enjoyed the experience.
The Nights themselves are almost more of a genre than a unitary work. I've written about this kind of thing before, when I read Aesop's Fables. The outer formal structure of the Nights is perfect for framing almost arbitrary anthologies of tales. The framing-story seems to have been borrowed into Arabic in the early 8th century, and in the centuries following, this gripping story of Princess Sheherazade telling stories by night, literally to save her life, became a set of bookends for an ever-growing, ever-more-comprehensive collection of stories, until there really was enough material that it became plausible that it represented a thousand and one nights of storytelling. Furthermore, this initial device of stories nested inside stories is repeated throughout the Nights, so that at one point there are as many as half-a-dozen different layers of stories "on the stack". Burton conveys this structure into English exactly as he found it in the manuscripts he worked with.
The Nights were introduced to Western Europe in the early 1700s, with Antoine Galland's French translation. Galland didn't try to be comprehensive, and he left out material he thought would be considered objectionable. The 200-page version I just read was compiled by Andrew Lang in the 1890s, mostly from Galland; I don't know how much of the wordsmithing is actually Lang's. I have already noted that the Aladdin translation was done by Violet Hunt. Lang's Nights sacrifices many stories and a lot of the nested structure, never going more than two layers deep, and drops all the sex and the dirty jokes. Many framing-stories, including the main one, retain only their beginning; the triumphant ending of the Sheherazade story is completely missing, leaving us hanging about Sheherazade's fate. Lang's English is much easier and more familiar than Burton's though.
Etext #129 is a million digits of the square root of 2, which I am passing on. Now I have started etext #130, G. K. Chesterton's Christian apology, Orthodoxy. I've never read any Chesterton before.